Young people’s lives are busier than ever before, with many activities and interests vying for their time outside of school. What role does reading play in this crowded lifestyle? Findings from our latest annual literacy survey of 21,000 8 to 16-year olds in the UK, published this month in our report Children and Young People’s Reading Today, suggest that reading plays an increasingly lesser role in young people’s leisure time, for example the frequency with which young people read. We found that only 30.8% of young people said that they read daily in their own time in 2011 compared with 38.1% in 2005. Conversely, more than a fifth of children and young people (21.6%) rarely or never read in their own time in 2011, up from 15.4% in 2005.
While fewer young people now read daily, we intriguingly also found that the proportion of children and young people who enjoy reading very much or quite a lot has remained static since 2005 (50% today vs 51% in 2005). These findings together suggest a clear issue with children and young people’s leisure time, with many children and young people enjoying reading but pushing it out in favour of other activities.
It isn’t the case that young people have shifted their reading patterns from paper to digital formats as a comparison of reading choices in 2005 and 2011 showed that, with the exception of text messages, reading across all formats, including technology-based reading, has fallen. For example, 77% of children and young people read magazines in 2005 while now just 57% do; comic reading has dropped from 64% to 50%; and reading on websites from 64% to 50%.
In line with numerous other studies, we also found that girls are more likely than boys to make time for reading, with 35.3% of girls saying that they read outside of class every day compared with 26.3% of boys (issues surrounding boys’ reading in the UK today are discussed here). However, our surveys – in line with OECD PISA international comparison data – show that the gap between boys and girls in terms of their daily reading has widened in recent years. For example, in 2005, 35% of boys and 42% of girls said that they read daily outside of class.
Not only are girls more likely than boys to read daily, they are also more likely to enjoy it than boys. Nearly twice as many girls as boys say that they enjoy reading very much (27.6% vs. 18.3%), with 56.7% of girls enjoying reading either very much or quite a lot compared with only 43.8% of boys. Conversely, nearly twice as many boys as girls say that they don’t enjoy reading at all (14.6% vs. 8.3%).
The gender gap in reading enjoyment is not just a UK phenomenon; instead, it is corroborated by numerous studies that all show that boys enjoy reading less than girls. For example, PISA showed that across OECD countries, just over half of 15-year-old boys (52%) said that they read for enjoyment compared with nearly three-quarters of girls (73%). However, the gender difference remains wider in 2011 than in 2005 (where the percentage point gap between boys and girls who enjoy reading either very much or quite a lot was 10.7). The PISA question is a combined reading enjoyment and reading frequency question, which might account for the different proportions of boys and girls who say that they enjoy reading compared with our survey.
Girls and boys also read different materials outside of class. More girls than boys say that they not only read technology-based formats, such as text messages, messages on social networking sites, emails and instant messages, but also that they read more “traditional” texts, such as fiction and poems as well as magazines and lyrics. By contrast, more boys than girls say that they read non-fiction, newspapers, comics and manuals. Girls’ penchant for technology-based materials is not simply explained by girls having greater access to computers or the internet than boys. Our survey also showed that roughly the same proportion of boys and girls say that they either own a computer (boys 72.1%; girls 74.0%), have access to one (boys 96.4%; girls 97.0%) or have the internet at home (boys 96.3%; girls 96.3%).
One other area that we would like to highlight here relates to ethnic background. We compared data on broad ethnic groups and found that the relationships between reading and ethnic background are complex. For example, young people from White backgrounds enjoy reading considerably less (White 49.4%; Mixed race 56.8%; Asian/Asian British 58.2%; Black/Black British 60.7%), and read daily less often (White 30.7%; Mixed race 34.2%; Asian/Asian British 32.6%; Black/Black British 38.3%). They are also less likely to agree that reading is “cool” (White 31.9%; Mixed race 37.7%; Asian/Asian British 44.1%; Black/Black British 47.4%). They are more likely to agree that they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them read (White 17.7%; Mixed race 15.6%; Asian/Asian British 13%; Black/Black British 12.3%). Young people from White backgrounds are also more likely to agree that they prefer watching TV to reading (White 54.5%; Mixed race 50.3%; Asian/Asian British 46.8%; Black/Black British 50.7%).
We believe it is essential to make the time for children and young people to read as the research also shows a clear link between reading outside of class and their achievement. It found that young people who read outside of class daily were 13 times more likely to read above the expected level for their age.
We hope this research will increase interest in children’s and young people’s reading habits and encourage government, families and those working with children and young people to help make reading part of a young person’s daily activities. To find out more about our research and the activities we undertake to address literacy issues in the UK and how you could become involved, see our website.
The American Library in Paris is organising a discussion on 25 September at 19:30 with the author of Let’s Read Them a Story, Francesca Borgonovi, and Peter Gumbel, author of On achève bien les ecoliers, to learn more about the book and what you can concretely do to help your children in school and beyond.
While the quality of online education is a subject of intense debate among educators, parents and students alike, what is no longer open to debate is the need for digital literacy. A recent report in The Guardian affirmed that adults with Internet skills are 25% more likely to get work and to earn as much as 10% more than their colleagues who don’t have such skills.
Are our children well-prepared to enter this technology-rich world?
Not as well as you might expect a crop of “digital natives” to be. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) finds that nearly 17% of 15-year-olds who have grown up “wired” do not have the skills to move easily through the digital environment—which means that these students could have a difficult time completing their studies and, later on, looking and applying for work, filling out forms to pay their taxes or even reserving a seat on a train.
PISA’s groundbreaking 2009 survey of students’ digital literacy shows some fascinating results. For example, in each of the 19 countries that participated in the digital reading assessment, the more frequently students search for information on line, the better their performance in digital reading.
Meanwhile, being unfamiliar with online social practices, such as e-mailing and chatting, seems to be associated with low digital reading proficiency. However, students who frequently send e-mails and chat on line attain lower digital reading scores, on average, than students who are only moderately involved in these activities.
Similarly, students who sometimes use computers at home for leisure or schoolwork scored higher in the digital reading assessment than both rare and intensive users. And after accounting for students’ academic abilities, the frequency of computer use at home, particularly for leisure activities, is positively associated with students’ ability to “navigate” among pages on the Internet, while the frequency of computer use at school is not. This finding suggests that students learn digital navigation skills by themselves, simply by exploring the nearly infinite offerings on the Internet. To help students at school, education systems should consider integrating computer use into curricula and investing more in training teachers on how to use digital technologies, both to help them teach and to help students learn.
The survey also finds that the gender gap in reading performance is narrower in digital reading than it is in print reading. Across all countries that participated in the digital reading assessment, girls outperform boys by an average of 24 score points in digital reading, while the difference in print reading is 38 score points – the equivalent of one year of formal schooling. These findings suggest that boys may be more interested in reading texts that are available to them on the Internet than in reading material that is conventionally consumed in print form, such as novels and non-fiction books. In turn, educators could use this finding as the basis of new strategies aimed at encouraging boys to read more and, ultimately, to become more enthusiastic and proficient readers.
This fourth round of the triennial PISA surveys also offers a broad view of how access to digital technologies has expanded over the past decade. Across the OECD countries that participated in both the PISA 2000 and 2009 surveys, the percentage of students who reported having at least one computer at home increased from 72% in 2000 to 94% in 2009, while home access to the Internet doubled from 45% to 89% during the same period. And there was also an increase in the computer-to-student ratio in schools – evidence that education systems invested substantially in information and communication technologies during the past decade.
The so-called “digital divide” used to be about access to computers. Today, there’s a second divide: between those people who are lost in the digital environment and those who have the skills to navigate efficiently and effectively through all the information now available to them through digital technologies. It is up to us – concerned policy makers, educators and parents – to ensure that our children are not left behind on the analog side of the digital divide. It is no overstatement to suggest that their futures depend on it.