Why we must do more to promote reading for pleasure

Hurray! At last, some good news about the impact of lockdown on children! Apparently, they have not only been reading more during lockdown but also tackling more challenging texts as well. Alas, the positive headlines masked what is actually a rather less encouraging situation. In fact, the overall trend in children’s reading is probably down rather than up, and — no surprises here — disadvantaged children are facing significantly greater challenges than their non-disadvantaged peers when it comes to reading. As a nation, we simply don’t read enough — despite the many undisputed benefits that reading brings. Nor do we do enough to make it easy and fun for our children to read. We need to give them every encouragement to develop the habit of reading for pleasure so that they carry a love of reading with them into adulthood.

The eye-catching headlines were generated by publication of the thirteenth What Kids Are Reading report by Renaissance Learning, in their words “the largest annual study of the reading habits and trends of students across the UK and Ireland”, involving more than one million young people and covering the 2019-2020 academic year.

The summary on their website reads:

Our data shows that the total number of books read overall in the 2019-20 academic year actually dropped by 17% against 2018-19. But the good news is that during the period of school closures due to Covid-19, reading levels increased! And when children did read, they were picking up longer books, and more challenging books for their age, which they read with better comprehension. In particular, children in year 7 and below improved their reading levels by reading more demanding texts.

from What Kids Are Reading 2021 – The Summary, a blog on the Renaissance Learning website

Professor Keith Topping of the University of Dundee, who was the author of the report, said:

Having more time to read gave children the chance to immerse themselves in literature. Schools should encourage more reading time now that they are open again. It is great to see that primary age children are reading more difficult books and this should be reflected at secondary school age where book difficulty this year plateaued. Secondary schools need to encourage their pupils to attack more difficult books.

Professor Keith Topping of the University of Dundee

The findings of the report are in line with research published in 2020 by the National Literacy Trust which found that:

  • children were reading and enjoying reading more during lockdown
  • children were reading genres they may not have tried before
  • reading helped support children’s mental wellbeing — 3 in 5 said that reading made them feel better

However, the National Literacy Trust also highlighted problems caused by a lack of access to books, a lack of quiet space to read at home and a lack of support and encouragement from school and friends because of lockdown. World Book Day research in March 2021 showed that “a quarter of primary schools raised concern that access to books had become a barrier to reading for pleasure and overall literacy levels.”

As in many other areas, lockdown — including the closure of schools and public libraries — merely exacerbated pre-existing difficulties and inequalities. For example, we recently posted about the unevenness of school library provision across the country, with schools in areas of highest deprivation having the worst provision.

Figures published on the website of The Reading Agency paint a depressing picture of the nation’s reading habits:

  • 31% of adults don’t read in their free time, rising to 46% of young people (aged 16 to 24)
  • Around 5.8 million people (16% of adults) score at the lowest level of proficiency in literacy (at or below Level 1)
  • Low levels of literacy cost the UK an estimated £81 billion a year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending
  • Adults with lower levels of literacy are more likely to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and are less likely to participate in volunteer activities

Proficiency in writing, oracy, numeracy and especially in reading is perhaps more important than ever in this digital age. Put simply, reading transforms lives — for people of all ages. The benefits of reading are incalculable. It increases educational attainment. It broadens horizons. It promotes tolerance and understanding across cultures. It develops creativity and the imagination. It boosts mental health and wellbeing. The list is endless.

Life-based learning is all about equipping children with knowledge, skills and values that they need now and throughout their lives. That’s why the Forum for Life-Based Learning supports the prioritisation of children reading for pleasure, building on their natural curiosity, so that they develop the reading habit at a young age and carry a love of reading with them into adulthood. And that’s why we say that our school libraries should be funded generously, so that reading for enjoyment can be a reality for all children and not just for the privileged few.

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Image at the head of this article by wei zhu from Pixabay.

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