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Improving the literacy skills of disadvantaged teenage boys through the use of technology

Added 02 Dec 2020 | Updated 15 Dec 20

In recent decades, a growing dependence on digital forms of communication has brought exciting visions of the potential for technology to support learning. This report explores the role that digital tools and resources can play in addressing the gender and disadvantage gap in young people’s literacy attitudes and outcomes. It combines insights from a review of the literature related to supporting teenage boys’ reading with new information gathered from interviews, focus groups and surveys of teachers, librarians, academics and young people from schools across the UK in 2019.

Key findings:

  • Teenagers are much less likely to say that they enjoy reading or that they read daily in their free time than younger children. While 71.9% of children aged 9 to 11 say that they enjoy reading, this decreases to 49.5% of those aged 11 to 14.
  • Boys’ reading enjoyment decreases significantly with age: 64.5% of boys aged 8 to 11 said that they enjoy reading in 2019, compared with 44.3% of boys aged 11 to 14, and 32.0% of boys aged 14 to 16 (ibid., 2019).
  • Research has shown that technology has the potential to narrow the gender gap in reading attainment and enjoyment (OECD, 2015; Clark and Picton, 2019).

Screen-based reading is particularly popular with boys with the lowest levels of reading enjoyment and those from lower income backgrounds

  • More than one-third (34.3%) of young people agreed with the statement, “Reading on screen is cooler than reading a book”, increasing to half (49.9%) of boys who don’t enjoy reading.
  • Boys eligible for free school meals (FSMs) are significantly less likely to say that they have a book of their own at home (67.1% vs. 77.5%). However, there is no difference between boys eligible and not eligible for FSMs with regard to access to smartphones (92.4% vs. 92.3%), tablets (74.7% vs. 76.4%) or laptops (74.7% vs. 82.6%).
  • In addition, boys eligible for FSMs are more likely than those not eligible for FSMs to say that they prefer to read on screen both at school (36.6% vs. 26.3%) and at home (56.0% vs. 45.6%).
  • Qualitative feedback suggests that some boys felt more able to find reading about topics that interested them (such as gaming and sports) online. Indeed, young people’s comments on their reading outside school often related to texts linked with video game playing, inspiring out later research into Video Game Playing and Literacy.

Technology is considered by many educators to be effective in supporting reading engagement and performance in disengaged boy readers

  • Surveys showed that 9 in 10 (91.9%) felt technology had the most potential for positive impact on reluctant boy readers, and more than three quarters (78.4%) on less able boys.
  • However, many teachers cited lack of hardware, software and wifi (58.4%) as the main barriers to using technology to support literacy in the classroom, and almost a quarter (23.3%) of respondents to our survey said they had neither initial nor ongoing training in the area of using technology to support literacy learning.

We are grateful to The Sir Halley Stewart Trust for funding this research, which has further informed the development and publication of a toolkit and elearning course sharing practical advice and guidance to support the use of technology in promoting young people’s reading enjoyment.

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