COVID-19 and literacy: Children’s literacy attitudes and behaviours

Child holding a book.JPG

National Literacy Trust research

Reading attitudes and behaviours

  • National Literacy Trust research carried out over May and June 2020 found that many children rediscovered their love of reading during the first lockdown, with several commenting that this was due to having more time (in their words) to ‘get into’ books (Clark and Picton, 2020).
  • While overall reading enjoyment levels were at a 15-year low just before the lockdown, the percentage of children who enjoy reading ‘very much’ or ‘quite a lot’ rose from 48% to 56% between early 2020 and June 2020. However, this was driven mainly by girls, with the gender gap in reading enjoyment increasing five-fold over the same period, from 2.3 to 11.5 percentage points.
  • However, some children also reported barriers to reading during the first lockdown, including lack of access to print books due to widespread school and library closures. Read our blog on transforming your primary library.
  • This will have had more of an impact on the 1 in 11 (9.3%) children eligible for free school meals who do not have a single book of their own at home. Find out more about our book gifting programme.
  • Other children reported that a lack of a quiet space at home and the absence of teacher and peer support at school had a negative impact on their motivation to read during lockdown.
  • Building on these findings, our Annual Literacy Survey (ALS), conducted between January and mid-March 2021, reached 42,502 children and young people aged 8 to 18. Reading enjoyment levels were lower than those seen during the first lockdown, with 1 in 2 (51.5%) of children saying they enjoy reading (51.5% vs. 56%). However, they remained higher than those seen at the beginning of 2020, when just under half (47.8%) of respondents to the ALS said they enjoy reading (Clark & Picton, 2021).
  • At the same time, the gap in reading enjoyment levels between pupils receiving, and not receiving, free school meals (FSMs) doubled between 2020 and 2021, increased from 2.1 to 4.6 percentage points.
  • There was a particular decrease in reading enjoyment seen in boys receiving FSMs, with 41.4% of this group enjoying reading, compared with 46.1% of boys not receiving FSMs.
  • One of the main reasons why children and young people were reading in early 2021 was to help them relax, with 1 in 2 (52.7%) reading for this purpose. 2 in 5 (44.6%) children and young people agreed that reading made them feel better.

Writing attitudes and behaviours

  • More than a fifth (21%) of children said they’d been writing more in their free time during lockdown than before, and 1 in 6 (18%) enjoyed writing more (Clark et al., 2020). Children reported writing more short stories and fiction (40%), letters (39%), diaries or journals (27%) and poetry (21%) during this time. A strong theme emerging from our research into literacy during the first lockdown was the extent to which reading, writing and listening to audiobooks supported children’s mental wellbeing. For example, 3 in 5 (59%) said reading made them feel better, 2 in 5 (41%) that writing made them feel better and 3 in 10 (32%) that listening to audiobooks made them feel better during lockdown.
  • Findings from our Annual Literacy Survey in early 2021 indicated that just over a third of children and young people say they enjoy writing. This is the lowest level of writing enjoyment we have recorded since we first asked this question in 2010 (Clark et al., 2021). While writing enjoyment declined over the past year for all children and young people, the decline was particularly pronounced for boys eligible for free school meals (FSMs).
  • Similarly, only 1 in 7 (15.2%) children and young people said in 2021 that they write something daily in their free time, the lowest daily writing rate recorded since we began asking the question in 2010.
  • However, writing continues to support children and young people’s mental wellbeing, with 2 in 5 (38.3%) children and young people agreeing that writing makes them feel better. Indeed, writing provided a lifeline for many during the pandemic, with children and young people telling us that they started writing in the pandemic to cope with anxiety but also to stay connected with people.

Listening attitudes and behaviours

  • In May and June 2020, more boys than girls reported listening to audiobooks more during lockdown (25% vs. 22%), with half (51%) saying it had increased their interest in reading and 2 in 5 (43%) saying it had increased their interest in writing, suggesting that audiobooks may be a powerful way to re-engage some boys with the wider world of literacy. Listening was the only format in which boys reported higher levels of engagement and enjoyment during lockdown compared with girls (Best et al., 2020).

Other literacy research

  • In April 2020, the regular ONS Opinions and Lifestyle online survey found that, for 39.2% of respondents, reading was an important part of coping during the first lockdown (ONS, 2020). Libraries reported a surge in online borrowing, with loans of online ebooks, e-magazines and audiobooks up an average of 63% in March compared with the previous year (BBC, 2020). A later report by Libraries Connected cited 120,000 new library members in the first three weeks of lockdown, and a 205% surge in ebook loans, predicting that extra investment in digital resources during the coronavirus crisis will have a long-term effect (Chandler, 2020).
  • A survey for The Reading Agency (TRA) found that 31% of adults were reading more since lockdown, and almost half (45%) of young people aged 18 to 24 were reading more than they had before. Most were reading classics and crime for escapism or distraction (BBC, 2020). A later survey for Nielsen found two-fifths (41%) of adults were reading more, with time spent reading increasing from 3.5 to 6 hours per week (Chandler, 2020). A third of respondents also said they’d spent more time reading to children, and of those who’d bought books for children, three-quarters said the genres they were buying had changed since the outbreak, with funny stories and schoolwork-related titles most popular.
  • A second TRA survey looking at children’s reading during May 2020 found that 90% of children aged 7 to 11 were reading during lockdown, with 70% of girls and 68% of boys “declaring their love of it” (The Reading Agency, 2020). Many were finding inspiration to read digitally, with 45% getting ideas from YouTube, and 28% from social media (31% got ideas from friends).


Several studies indicated that the first lockdown offered many children, young people and adults the time to rediscover reading for enjoyment.

Comments from children taking part in our lockdown survey indicated that time had, for them, played an essential role in helping them 'get into' a book. It is worth remembering that for many newer readers, absorption in a book can take some time, particularly for those who find reading more effortful as an activity. However, our surveys showed that girls (already keener readers than boys in general) drove most of the increase in reading enjoyment over this time.

Interestingly, boys were more likely to report enjoying listening to audiobooks more during lockdown, and many said that it had increased their interest in reading or writing, suggesting that audio formats may be a powerful way to re-engage boys with the wider world of literacy.

Many children also shared how reading, writing and listening had supported their wellbeing during such a difficult and worrying time.

It is important to note that many children faced barriers to reading, such as lack of access to books when school and public libraries were closed. 1 in 11 children eligible for free school meals do not have a single book of their own at home, and for these children, catching up on a 'to be read' pile was a luxury they could not enjoy.

It is also worth remembering that many children lack access to a quiet space at home where they can concentrate, and others missed the support of discussions about books and reading with teachers and friends while schools were closed.

Our most recent research into writing showed that writing enjoyment and frequency has declined dramatically in recent years, and particularly worrying is the decline in writing enjoyment for boys eligible for free school meals.

Writing brings benefits in so many areas, not only academic, but for self-expression and wellbeing: many children told us that they started writing during the pandemic to cope with difficult feelings and to feel more connected to others. More information about COVID, literacy and wellbeing may be found here.

Lessons learned from the first lockdown include the need to give children and young people adequate time to 'get into' reading. A few minutes here and there may not be sufficient to allow all children, especially less confident or fluent readers, the time they need to become immersed in a story.

In addition, the value of audio formats, both in themselves and as a route for stimulating wider interest in reading and writing, should not be underestimated. Finally, the essential role of libraries and book-gifting schemes for offering more equitable access to books for all children should be recognised and commended.

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