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Children's reading for pleasure in decline

5th Mar 20

An emphasis on literacy over reading for pleasure, failing to read aloud to children and increases in screen time are contributing to a 'long term decline' in the percentage of children reading for pleasure, according to a new report from publisher Egmont.

Figures show a steep year-on-year decline in reading for pleasure among 11 to 13-year-olds reading daily, from 32% in 2018 down to 23% in 2019.

Egmont is now lobbying Government to change the curriculum to make storytime a statutory part of the school day for Key Stage 1 and 2.

With the publisher's earlier Stories and Choices research proving the tremendous impact of regular storytime, Egmont said, "If all children are read to at school, every day, then all children will be exposed to the pleasures of reading, no matter what their family circumstances. It would be the ultimate in inclusivity."

Egmont stated, "Children's reading for pleasure remains challenged. We know the key reasons: they are not read to frequently enough or long enough (ideally children should be read to until they are well into their teens); their leisure time is filled with digital entertainment so that little time is left for other things, including reading; and many children perceive reading to be a subject to learn and not an enjoyable pastime."

Figures from Nielsen Book: Understanding the Children's Book Consumer Survey, suggest that just 15% of 14-17 year olds read for pleasure daily, while 20% of 0-13s rarely or never read for pleasure.

The percentage of 5-7s reading daily has, however, grown, from 35% in 2018 up to 41% in 2019. This has contributed to the net result of 0-13 year-olds' reading daily remaining the same, at 29%.

The percentage is different by age of child, and by age of parent. Parents of 0-13s who are part of Generation X (between the ages of 39 and 54 in 2019) are more likely to say their child reads daily or nearly every day for pleasure than Millennial parents (those between the ages of 23 and 38 in 2019).

Notwithstanding the small increase with 5-7s since 2018, children reading for pleasure is in long term decline. Across the three age clusters (0-4s, 5-10s and 11-17s) children have been reading less frequently since 2012.

Magazines appeal more than books to some children because they are a 'light touch' with reading: 35% of parents of 0-13s say their child prefers them to books, and this is more so for boys (40% of boys prefer them). They offer an important way into reading. Again, we see difference by the age of parents: children of Millennials are more likely to prefer them than children of Generation X (39% vs 31%, 8 percentage points difference, or 25%).

44% of 0-13s read magazines at least monthly. They are typically read at lesser frequencies than books and are a much enjoyed part of a reading repertoire - by over half of 5-10 year olds, for instance.

Few parents read aloud to their children frequently, with just one third of children aged 0-13 being read to daily or nearly every day by parents in 2019. This is in long term decline; in 2012 the figure was 41%. However, the more often children are read to, the greater the likelihood of them choosing to read for pleasure themselves.

The publisher also found that literacy - the ability to read and write - is confused and conflated with reading for pleasure by parents, children and in schools. "This is in part because the curriculum is focused on the teaching of reading and it's largely procedural, concerned with skills and comprehension. Little time is given to fostering a love of reading for pleasure," said the publisher.

"Children easily experience reading as work, something task-based. This is compounded by the fact that many parents perceive their child's reading fluency as the goal. By school age, many parents' reading involvement is reduced to simply ensuring the child's reading homework is done."

Millennial parents are less likely to say it's essential to read to very young children (59%) than Generation X parents (67%), which indicates that reading to children may continue to decline unless action is taken.

The publisher responded, "Parents need to be made aware of the benefits and pleasure of reading to their child We know many parents don't read to their child because they are unaware of the need to. They are unaware of the enormous benefits and pleasure it brings." Also, as children get older, parents think it becomes less necessary to read to them. "There is a widespread, mistaken belief that 'can read' means 'will choose to read for pleasure'" Egmont added.

Children who read for pleasure do better at school in all subjects and enjoy better wellbeing, but many children prefer screen time to reading a book. The most effective way to encourage a child to read for pleasure is to read aloud to them - from babies, through childhood and ideally into their teenage years

Time spent daily using a smartphone or tablet - instead of other activities such as reading - has been increasing rapidly, although the appeal of digital entertainment hasn't extended to reading books; ebooks account for just 4% of children's book sales, most of which were bought for or by readers aged 17+. Across all ages from 3-17 year olds, at least half prefer screen time to reading a book, peaking at 83% with boys 11-13.

For this to change, Egmont says, children need to be encouraged to read for pleasure. "It matters socially, because children who read for pleasure simply do better in life. They have a better sense of well-being. They reach greater levels of attainment, in all subjects. By feeding knowledge, imagination and by engaging empathy, reading feeds children's growing humanity. Nothing less than children's life chances are at stake.

"We know that reading aloud to children is a key motivator for children to read for themselves. It enthuses, inspires and motivates independent reading."

Parents need to be made aware of the critical importance of reading aloud to their child, and well beyond the point at which their child is capable of reading, Egmont added. "By sharing reading, showing it's a pleasure and sharing that pleasure, they will build their child's desire to read independently and establish a reading habit.

"Reading charities do excellent work targeted at specific communities. However, this is a pervading issue that is not only found in communities of disadvantage. Just 33% of 0-13s are read to daily or nearly every day by their parents."

At school, however, there is the opportunity to read to children, just for pleasure, every day, which is why Egmont is now taking its campaign for reading for pleasure to the government, and the classroom.

All data sourced from: Nielsen Book: Understanding the Children's Book Consumer Survey

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