Higher book sales - but fewer readers?

Posted on Saturday, March 18, 2017

While children's book sales are thriving, fewer children are reading for pleasure. Studies from the UK and Australia point the blame for a decline in children's independent reading at screen time, and a fall in the number of parents reading to their children.

The good news is that more children's books are being bought. Last year saw a 7% growth in the UK children's book market which means that 24p in every 1 spent on books is now being spent on a children's book (Nielsen BookScan 2016 vs 2015). Children's magazine sales are also growing and now account for 14% of the magazine market (Seymour Distribution 2016 vs 2015). However, research also suggests that most children would rather be doing something else than reading.... According to Nielsen Children's Deep Dive 2016 report, more than half of pre-school (51%) and primary aged children (57%) would rather be doing something active than read books. The internet is a growing culprit, the research suggests. At primary age, 'rather use the internet'. comes in as the second reason for not reading (54%) but by the time they are at secondary school, a preference for the internet is the main obstacle to reading (74%). A new study into children's reading habits in Australia confirms earlier research that children prefer to read books on paper than e-readers - but also backs the theory that children read less when they have access to digital devices. The report, 'The influence of access to e-readers, computers and mobile phones on children's book reading frequency' by Margaret K. Merga and Saiyidi Mat Roni, analysed data from 997 children in the 2016 Western Australian Study in Children's Book Reading to determine children's level of access to devices with e-reading capability, and how they used of these devices in reading for pleasure. Children in the study - including those who read daily - were found to under-utilise reading devices. The study also found that they read less if they had access to mobile phones and still less when they had access to a greater range of digital devices. The report points out that young people are gaining increasing access to devices at school and that schools and libraries are growing their e-book collections, while parents are under pressure to use educational technologies at home. However, there is little research available to show the outcomes of access to digital devices. "While children in developed countries are gaining ever-increasing levels of access to devices at home, relatively little is known about the influence of access to devices with e-reading capability, such as Kindles, iPads, computers and mobile phones, on young children's reading behaviours, and the extent to which these devices are used for reading purposes when access is available," said the researchers. Publisher Egmont, which commissions ongoing research into children's reading, was keen to explore another influence on children's reading habits; the link between children being read to, and children reading independently. Among those aged 5-7 years, for example, 35% read to themselves daily when they were read to weekly; that increased to 51% when children were read to daily (Nielsen Children's Deep Dive 2016). Over the last five years, however, there has been a steady decline in the number of children being read to, especially among those aged naught to four years. In 2012, for example, some 68% of children were being read to daily. By 2016, that had fallen to around 47% - an enormous decline of 20% (Nielsen Children's Deep Dive 2016). The message about the importance of reading to children is not getting through. According to Nielsen's data, the main reasons parents don't read to their children are a lack of time, and tiredness. As children get older, 'I think they are too old to be read to' becomes a barrier along with 'they think they are too old to be read to', so that by 11-13 years these are the two main reasons. When children themselves were asked what would help them read more, some 22% of 14-15 year olds said they would still like to be read to. More help in finding books they would like to read as well as having a bedtime reading routing might also help them to read more. In its annual review of the children's market and bedtime reading, Egmont said, "It is clear that parents need to be involved in their child's reading, help them find books that appeal and help them establish and maintain a bedtime reading routine. This will give the reading habit a chance to stick." Egmont decided to undertake its own research into how much parents reading to children influenced children's independent reading. Its Print Matters study in 2015 had revealed a deep emotional response from parents and children to reading in print. Building on this insight, Egmont's follow-up study, Print Matters More, set out to explore whether the deep emotional connection that reading with a child inspires can influence behaviour change and encourage more reading and more book buying. The Print Matters More study ran for 6 months (July 2016 - January 2017) during which Egmont worked with 15 families with children 7-9 years old (school years 3-5), all of whom were reluctant readers. The first stage was an intervention and ran over the six-week summer holiday. Families were given a 10 voucher every week for their child to spend on a new book from their local Foyles bookstore; they families were also given cafe vouchers. All mums agreed to read with their child for 20 minutes each day. This approach created a shared reading routine for the families. At the end of the holiday, each family received 100 as a thank you for taking part. The second stage, after the summer holiday ended, involved leaving the families to do as they wished without prompting or incentivising them. They were interviewed in October 2016 and January 2017. The aim was to see if the experience of reading and buying regularly over the summer would be enough to make behaviour change. After the six weeks' holiday, there had been big changes in attitudes and behaviours. Children's enjoyment was running high. They loved being read to and being able to choose books themselves rather than a parent choosing for them. Real behaviour change was noticed by the researchers, including switching to chapter books, reading independently, of their own volition, and reading more. Having free choice of what they read seemed transformational in the attitude of the children to reading, and that led to a greater commitment to read. The families were interviewed again in October and in January, when they were asked about their reading and book buying. On both occasions the habits from the summer intervention had stuck. 11 of the families were still reading after six months and planned to continue. Being read to can had a powerful influence on children's reading habits, as independent reading flourished alongside being read to. The children made progress in their reading and 14 improved in reading levels and confidence. 10 of the children were reading independently, more often, and the children had also improved maths, comprehension, spelling and vocabulary. Even after the programme, eight of the families had returned to Foyles by January and 12 of the children received books for Christmas; something that was new in their households. Alison David, consumer insight director at Egmont, said: "Parents' involvement is critical - they need to read to their child. The experience of being read to is so very powerful and joyful that it is a key determinant of a child's independent reading for pleasure. "The most important thing a parent can do for their child's reading is to continue to read to them throughout their childhood, even when they are capable of reading for themselves. Independent reading flourishes alongside being read to." Being read to daily, as well as reducing screen time, could, the research suggests, help reverse the rapid decline in children reading for pleasure that we have seen in the UK. Ultimately, though, it is the parents and carers who will need to be persuaded.