Keeping teens reading

March 2nd, 2020 By Jo Buchan

In 2018, a large US study found that a third of the 12th graders (year 13 in NZ) surveyed hadn’t read a book or eBook for pleasure in the last year. That is about three times as many as in the 1970s. Reading for pleasure, the report goes on to say, has been displaced by the rise of digital media since the 2000s.

Reading lies at the foundation of all literacies and, in an era of increased digital consumption, information overwhelm and fake news, these findings should have us all on alert.

Neil Postman wrote the classic book, 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' in 1985, but his thoughts on the consequences of the rise of television and the decline of reading are eerily relevant today:

We are losing a sort of psychic habit, a logic, a sense of complexity, an ability to spot contradictions and even falsity.

Young person's hands holding open book on a table outside
Image by Christin Hume. Unsplash. License to use.

Reading for pleasure matters

That there are fewer teenagers reading books than in the past may not come as much of a surprise. Supporting teens to read for pleasure — developing the ‘will’ to read — brings a raft of benefits and is a powerful ally in developing literate, compassionate, healthy, and engaged citizens.

Reading for pleasure is associated with numerous benefits — from improvements in reading achievement and comprehension, writing, vocabulary, and general knowledge to improved empathy, understanding of self and others, and wellbeing.

The more you enjoy reading, the more you read. The more you read, the better you become at reading. The better you become, the more you read — a virtuous cycle.

The Booktrust report Reading for Pleasure: Reviewing the Evidence (pdf, 676KB) wrote:

Currently, there is a large gap in achievement between secondary school students who read books for pleasure and those who do not (OECD, 2010; Mol and Bus, 2011), and the strongest predictor of reading growth from age 10 to age 16 is whether a child reads for pleasure (Sullivan & Brown, 2013).

Reading for pleasure in decline

As children journey through school and into adolescence, it is not unusual to find formerly engaged readers lose their interest in reading.

Scholastic's 2019 Kids & Family Reading Report found there is a significant decline in children's enjoyment of reading after about age 8 and states:

...each edition of our report has found that, as kids grow up, reading frequency, enjoyment and children’s sense of its importance decline. As one 16-year-old girl described it, 'I really don't have time to read any books that I want. I liked it better when I was younger and could read whatever I wanted'.

New Zealand research also indicates a decline in reading interest, with a longitudinal research study, Growing Independence: Competent Learners @ 14, stating: 'Enjoyment of reading — which turns out to be a key indicator for learning engagement as well as competency levels — had declined since age 12.'

Reading engagement and wellbeing

The 2018 National Literacy Trust report Mental wellbeing, reading and writing, based on findings from a survey of 49,047 children and young people aged 8 to 18 years in the UK, found:

  • 'Children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged (39.4% vs 11.8%).
  • Conversely, children who are the least engaged with literacy are twice as likely to have low levels of mental wellbeing than their peers who are the most engaged (37.4% vs 15%).'

They also found that young people’s levels of literacy engagement and mental wellbeing both begin and continue to decline as they transition from primary to secondary school.

Secondary schools supporting reading for pleasure

In 2012, Australian academic Margaret Merga set out to answer two questions:

  1. Do adolescent students perceive primary teachers as being more or less encouraging of reading books for pleasure than secondary?
  2. Which characteristics and practices of secondary teachers are perceived by adolescent students to convey and promote a positive attitude towards recreational book reading?

She asked these questions to year 8 and year 10 students (equivalent to NZ years 9 and 11) in 20 Western Australian schools.

In response to her first question, Merga found that primary teachers encouraged reading for pleasure a lot more than secondary teachers.

It’s a finding echoed in the New Zealand report, 2014 National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) in English: Reading , which showed the opportunities and activities that promote reading for pleasure become less frequent as children progress through school. For example, 46% of girls and 41% of boys in year 4 responded that they very often had lots of books to choose from in their classroom. In year 8, that number had dropped to 16% of girls and 15% of boys. As for reading aloud, 39% of girls and 36% of boys said their teacher very often read aloud to their class and in year 8, 24% of boys and girls gave the same response.

These correlate to responses from students at a workshop we ran to explore the reading interests of boys in years 6–9. The aim was to avoid stereotypes and assumptions about the types of books boys might be interested in and to encourage them to follow their interests. During the day, we also asked the boys to complete a survey about their reading interests and reading lives. Nearly half of the student stated in the survey that they are never read aloud to at home or at school. Two students specified that ‘mum’ read to them and none of the boys said ‘dad’. In Merga’s study, none of the students could remember teachers at secondary school reading aloud to them.

Reading aloud

Research consistently points to reading aloud as one of the most effective methods of luring students young and old into the wonder of books, while developing a raft of literacy skills, reducing stress, and helping to foster a classroom community of readers. As Neil Gaiman writes:

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves.

This decline in opportunities for, and promotion of, recreational reading at school indicates a belief that once students have the skill to read independently, the will to read will follow — a phenomenon Merga calls 'expired expectation'. Too often reading and reading aloud at secondary schools is tied to work and/or exam requirements.

Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.
— Kate DiCamillo

Characteristics and practices of secondary teachers who encourage reading

The responses to Merga’s second question enabled her to identify six important practices and qualities of teachers who encourage recreational reading:

  • personal enjoyment of reading that's clearly apparent
  • a willingness to instigate and support student-centred discussion around books
  • broad knowledge of both young adult texts and youth popular culture
  • effectively communicated expectations that students will read at school and at home
  • knowledge of the interests and aspirations of the students
  • the use of in-class practices that encourage reading for pleasure, such as reading aloud to students and silent reading.

Building a school reading culture

If we want teenagers to choose to read, then secondary school staff need to be reading role models, who encourage, support, and provide access to a range of reading resources and time to read. Young people require opportunities to choose their own books, to read those books, and to discuss their reading in every subject, not just in English. And they need to build reading partnerships with families and whānau to help support their reading at home.

The aim is to develop readers with the skill and the will to read and, as the author of 'Reader, Come Home' Maryanne Wolf suggests, we need to develop readers who are ‘bi-literate’:

We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a 'bi-literate' reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

Find out more

Engaging teens with reading — inspiration and strategies to encourage teens to read for pleasure.

School staff as readers — how to be a reading role model.

A school-wide reading culture — ideas for ensuring students have the network of support and encouragement they need to become engaged readers.

Reading on-screen vs reading in print — a blog post that explores how well students learn when they read online and the outcomes of on-screen reading compared with reading in print.

Reading for pleasure — a door to success — research shows reading for pleasure improves literacy, social skills, health, and learning outcomes.

National Library's school lending service — provides fiction and non-fiction books to inspire and inform students’ inquiry and develop their love of reading.

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Kyla Vincent
11 March 2020 11:42am

I found this article very informative thank you.

Celine Mason
11 March 2020 11:38am

thumbs up

Radar McGuinness
10 March 2020 7:57pm

Stunning stuff!

Judith Drabble
10 March 2020 9:51am

It is sad to see fewer young people reading - they do not know what they are missing or how life-changing reading can be. It is important for parents and teachers to model the reading habit so more teenagers "catch" it. Pleasure and knowledge are to be had this way.