By Faith Bowman, Teacher and research team volunteer
The ‘Children and Young People’s Reading in 2023’ report closes with a call for action. A rallying cry for policymakers, schools, families and the wider community to work collaboratively in order to address the rapidly declining rates of reading enjoyment and frequency exhibited by our young people. Once read, the contents within make it very hard not to listen.
The report itself makes for uncomfortable reading: it does not shy away from declaring a crisis point. Yet, as I read that reading enjoyment in 8 to 18-year olds is the lowest since records began, I find myself not surprised. Didn’t I already somewhat know this? As an English teacher, do I not try place books into the hands of reluctant young people daily? Do I not feel somewhat exasperated by (what often feels like) the majority of my class eye-rolling when I suggest we head to the library or share our class reader? And yet, did it not take this lived experience being boiled down to numbers - just 43.4% of young people reporting they enjoy reading, the lowest in two decades - to turn my earnest hopes to shocked despair. By not meeting that subconscious recognition with innovative action had I been complicit in the crisis?
The gender gap is closing, but at some expense
Whilst as teachers we are free to use our best professional judgement and draw upon best practice, we must always appease and adhere to the ever-changing directions of educational policy. As individuals that spend our days espousing good behaviour, we’re pretty good at doing what we’re told. Sometimes this makes going against the grain pretty difficult; most of the time it makes the oft-done thing feel like the right thing.
It felt like the right thing to establish boys only book clubs. It felt like the right thing to ensure our new curriculum texts had the right kind of front cover, to appeal to the right kind of audience. It felt like the right thing to prioritise the author visit who would also head out to play football on the school field at break time. It felt right to meet headlines concerning the declining reading engagement of young boys with specific, targeted responses - so that’s what many of us did. But it’s also then what some of us continued to do. Admittedly, we’re dealing in heavy stereotypes but to make a big impact quickly and really engage our ‘reluctant boy readers’ we chose to appeal to the masses. Yet this may have been at the expense of not really engaging the masses at all. Can we truly be shocked that the gender gap in reading enjoyment halving is largely because our young girls have suffered a huge decline in their reading enjoyment? Yes, the 'gap’ closed, but at a huge expense.
It seems we may also have unwittingly dropped the ball with our younger readers. The decline in reading enjoyment in 8 to 11-year olds is described as needing the most urgent action as it continues to fall the most rapidly. Yet, how many of us continued to believe that reading interest peaks between the ages of 8 and 11? We continued to act in good faith, believing it was the role of the secondary teacher to duly try to prevent the sudden apathy towards reading manifesting in our teenagers; the role of the primary teacher to instil and encourage the crucial early love for reading. As the report claims: it is a watershed moment when what we have held as truth is shown to be a fallible fiction. Without our support, all children are vulnerable to forgetting and foregoing their love of reading. If we continue to do the oft-done thing, without closely examining our actions and motivations, we will continue to fail to do the right thing by our young people.
A matter of momentum
Crucially, the report offers much scope for rediscovering the ‘right’ thing. There is hope contained within its findings and clear directions to reverse the dangerous trajectory we find ourselves on. It finds that 3 in 4 children aged 5 to 8 enjoy reading in their free time, this drops to just over 2 in 5 children aged 8 to 18. For me, it seems clear that this is therefore a matter of momentum. We are not introducing something new to our young people, we just need to redouble our efforts in ensuring that their positive reading attitude and habit is maintained. So, what follows are my glimmers. The moments that made me think, reflect on my practice, and feel hopeful about my potential to positively contribute to the change we so desperately need to make:
- Whilst often we lament the pandemic as years of lost opportunity and mislaid potential – which, I do not dispute – there are moments of data revealed in the report that cry out to be probed further. In 2021, the year immediately following the most severe lockdown enforcements, the highest number of girls aged 8 to 18 reported enjoying reading in their free time since 2016. Similarly, young people aged 11 to 14 - whose levels of reading enjoyment had been steadily declining since 2016- and aged 14 to 16, both recorded significantly higher levels of reading enjoyment in 2021. Yet, in 2022 the percentage of all three cohorts reporting their enjoyment of reading fell significantly and continued to do so this year. This cannot be merely coincidental.
The report makes interesting observations about reading environments, both in school and at home, and it becomes clear there are strong links between a young person’s environment and both their attitude towards, and enjoyment of, reading. Notably, it is found that ‘three times as many young people who perceived their home reading environment to be supportive said that they enjoyed reading compared with their peers who came from a home that was, in their perception, not supportive.’ Clearly, a positive reading environment can have a profound effect on our young people’s inclination to choose reading. Notwithstanding the many detriments, it seems something about the pandemic environment tapped into our young people’s reading enjoyment and motivation. Its benefits being confined solely to the immediate aftermath indicates it’s something that we have left behind. As practitioners we must understand and identify what this elusive jigsaw piece was so as to harness the benefits moving forward. With many of our young people being out of the classroom for this period we must consider that in order to optimise our school reading environment we need to learn from the many ameliorative home environments that instigated this uptick.
- It may also be time that we change the way we talk about reading. The report groups readers into three categories: social, mindful and curious. The social reader seeks to spend time with others and connect to the world and its’ issues through their reading. The mindful reader reads to regulate and stimulate their own mental environment. The curious reader wants to learn and grow from the materials they access. As I stumble over the statistic that 1 in 2 children and young people claim they read to learn new words, I hear the echo of teacher-student-parent interactions gone by. Expanding a young person’s vocabulary is imperative yet as a self-professed reader I would always view this (albeit fantastic) outcome as a by-product. Perhaps our young people would be more enthused about reading if the narrative more plaintively prioritised the aesthetic over the efferent. With 11 to 16- year olds, our most disengaged readers, being the least likely to label themselves as ‘mindful’ readers it seems we are not advocating the passive benefits of a sustained reading habit quite loudly enough.
Consider reading motivation
I know that I can be guilty of grouping my students into simply ‘do reads’ and ‘don’t reads.’ If I pursue with all my might to move as many from the latter category into the former as I can, I may be successful, but it will be largely without direction. By understanding with more clarity why our young people read and enabling them to form their own nuanced reading identity- an identity that moves beyond mere adherence- we can better support our young people to nurture their reading enjoyment. A social reader will not discover their love of reading when presented with twenty minutes to independently read during their school day. A mindful reader will not discover their love of reading when tasked to create an informative presentation utilising only library-based research. We owe it to our young people to garner greater understanding of what makes a reader, only then will we be able to help a current non-reader discover their reader within.[MG6]
- Prevalent throughout the report is the positive recording of 14 to 18- year olds. The number of young people aged 14 to 16 who enjoy reading in their free time has increased over the past 18 years, as has the number who read daily. 3 in 5 of those aged over 16 say they enjoy reading. Whilst it may be wishful thinking, I hope that these figures represent a delayed response to the hard work of so many individuals in ensuring reading remains visible even in the face of the maintained apathy of teenagers. Whilst so many young people may seem to rebel and resist against a pastime for which we advocate so strongly, what if our best efforts are being recouped just at a timescale that is longer than we hope for. Without a focussed longitudinal study it’s purely conjecture; but it’s guesswork and numbers that gives me reassurance and sustenance to keep going even when the rewards don’t seem to be immediately reaped.
- Whilst we often consider our students and their reading habits through the traditional lenses of gender, age and socio-economic status, the report finds stark differences between geographical locations. Though this doesn’t have immediate translation to the everyday work of schools that remain very much situated in one place our catchment areas can be wide and diverse. Clearly, geography matters. When examining our own catchments and cohorts more closely there may be patterns we have missed. Do all of our localities and communities have purposeful public libraries? Do all early-years settings read to their children in equal measure? Did the local NCT groups advocate the benefit of reading even to the smallest of children? Though our students may be drawn from a relatively small geographical location the communities contained within will differ greatly; the report emphasises the importance of elevating such as a framework through which to consider intervention and support.
In light of these glimmers, the report confirms three things for me clearly. Firstly, we must know our cohort. They are so much more than just national numbers and trends; the oft-done thing will not always remain the right course of action. Secondly, we must stay abreast of the research. Experts provide a wealth of knowledge to ensure that as practitioners we are empowered to take the most informed actions, it is foolish not to take heed. Finally, we must embrace becoming researchers ourselves. Collectively the greatest impact will be made when begin to assess and respond to the impact of our practice on our cohort and not wait to react to a change in the tide. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words. The ‘Children and Young People’s Reading in 2023’ report articulates its findings clearly; we now must take decisive action as practitioners to ensure that the 2024 report can celebrate an entirely different narrative.