Encouraging Children to Read for Pleasure in the Digital Age
We live in a world overloaded with information. There are endless sources of entertainment available at the click of a button. Now, more than ever, children are being exposed to greater screen time from TV, games, computers, tablets and mobiles – a vast array of digital displays all competing for their attention.
In recent years, there has been an alarming decrease in the number of children reading for enjoyment. Findings from Nielson Book Research's Understanding the Children's Book Consumer Survey show a steady year-on-year decline in children between the ages of 11–13 reading for pleasure.
In 2018, 32% of children in this age group were reported to be reading daily; this dropped considerably to just 23% in 2019. The study also showed that 20% of children aged 0–13 rarely or never read for pleasure.
Most parents and carers of children would agree that books and reading are essential for childhood development. Aside from the vital literacy and language skills gained through reading, books help support the mental and emotional wellbeing of children.
Perhaps, one of the most fundamental parts of reading for pleasure, is that it helps children’s imaginations to flourish by actively engaging their brains and helping them to picture people, places and worlds beyond their own.
What can be done to get, and keep, young readers interested in reading for fun in this digital-centric world? Firstly, let's take a look into some of the possible reasons for the decline in children reading for pleasure.
Photo: Green Bean Collection fan reading Green Bean's Bedtime
Barriers to reading books
Accessibility is a huge issue for children being able to read for pleasure. Public libraries have been grossly underfunded for years, forcing many to reduce their services, restricting the ranges of books available by preventing them stocking new books, or having to close their doors altogether.
A similarly dire picture is painted within schools, with decades of austerity leading to a lack of provisions within school libraries. It is shocking when confronted with the fact that, whilst it is a legal requirement for all prisons in the UK to have a library, there is no such requirement for schools.
Sadly, it is children from the most disadvantaged areas who are worst affected by this. Many children from the poorest areas in the UK don't have access to books at home. Research has shown that in 2019 only one third of children aged 0–13 were being read to by their parents every day, or nearly every day.
This, combined with public library closures and school libraries being severely depleted or non-existent, makes it hardly surprising that kids are looking to digital sources of entertainment instead of picking up a book to read.
Campaigns to support school libraries
Though the situation in schools may seem bleak, there are several campaigns seeking to improve accessibility of books for all children to encourage a love of reading from an early age.
The Great School Libraries Campaign
The Great School Libraries (GSL) campaign is on a mission to bring libraries and access to librarians back to every school in the UK. The team behind the campaign include chartered librarians, teachers and lecturers, and members of CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals).
Teresa Cremin, Professor of Education (Literacy) at The Open University in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language, states that:
"International evidence indicates schools with libraries and librarians impact positively on reader enjoyment, children’s attitudes to learning and reading outcomes and attainment. A quality school library is every child’s right."
With this in mind, the GSL campaign’s goal is to ensure that children from all backgrounds and family circumstances are able to access books at school.
Find out more about the GSL campaign and how to get involved here: https://www.greatschoollibraries.org.uk/
Cowell states that millions of children are "missing out on opportunities to discover the life-changing magic of reading", especially those from the poorest backgrounds. In her letter to the Prime Minister, she goes on to say that:
“Decades of research show a reader for pleasure is more likely to be happier, healthier, to do better at school, and to vote – all irrespective of background.”
Her campaign has been inspired by her two decades of experience visiting schools, and current research showing the benefits of reading for pleasure, countered by the stark reality of the financial pressures school libraries are faced with.
Find out more about the campaign and read Cressida Cowell’s full letter to the government here.
Overemphasis on literacy reduces enjoyment in reading
One of the factors being blamed for children losing interest in reading for pleasure is the heavy focus on reading for literacy in schools. There’s no denying that learning literacy skills is vital for childhood development, but there needs to be a balanced approach.
Too much emphasis on reading purely as a means to an end – to achieve certain grades and be able to get a job – is damaging. Reading for the sheer love of the words, the way the sentences flow, the imagery conjured up, the other worlds to explore and the characters we can relate to and identify with – there is so much more to books than simply learning to read and write.
Author visits inspire kids to read more books
Research by the National Literacy Trust The Impact of Writer Visits on Children and Young People’s Reading and Writing Engagement showed that author visits to schools helped to increase children’s enjoyment of reading and writing.
Despite this, only one in four children were reported to have had any author visits over the last academic year, with those from the most disadvantaged areas once again missing out.
This link between live storytelling and children’s engagement with reading books for fun seems to be the key to igniting a love of reading in kids from a young age.
What books may struggle to compete with in the digital age are the attention-grabbing elements of TV shows, computer games and mobile phones. Children, especially younger ones, are easily distracted by the way in which these digital forms of entertainment capture the attention –flashing lights, colours, noises, and interactive elements.
Perhaps this is down to children’s decreasing attention spans in a digitally-bombarded world of TV and adverts, of social media and screen time overload, making it increasingly challenging to focus for any length of time on one particular topic or activity.
This suggests that one of the key ways in which author visits encourage children to enjoy reading and take more of an interest in books, is down to the entertainment element of it.
Live storytelling is interactive; it captivates the mind and engages people’s attention with different voices used for each character and the overall theatricality of reading aloud which brings the books to life.
How to rekindle a love of reading in the next generation
Back to the original question, then – how do we encourage children to read for pleasure in the digital age?
Though the decline in children reading books for enjoyment is clearly an area for concern, that is not to say that digital forms of storytelling and entertainment are bad or should not be used.
There are many benefits to utilising digital formats. The internet and social media are powerful tools for sharing information quickly with a large, global audience.
When used in the right way, they can serve to increase interest in books by promoting new book launches, telling people about upcoming literary festivals and author events, and to connect and communicate with the people who are the gatekeepers of children reading – the parents, carers, teachers and childcare providers who can all help to nurture a lifelong love of reading in children.
Many children’s TV shows have been created from much-loved books, bringing the stories and characters to life and helping to engage children’s imaginations. There are games and interactive online platforms using characters from books, to help children learn whilst having fun.
Arguably the best way to engage young readers and get children reading books for pleasure is threefold:
1. Improving accessibility of books for all children within schools and public libraries through proper funding.
2. Ensuring all school children experience at least one author visit per academic year.
3. Using a blended approach to storytelling, through digital and printed forms of entertainment and education.
All children, regardless of their background or family circumstances, deserve to have access to books on a daily basis. Only then can we hope to rekindle a love of reading in the next generation.
Do you have any other ways to engage children and inspire enjoyment of books? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Follow me on Twitter @MelBrannlund or email me email@example.com.
Look out for Melissa's latest articles on Anita Frost's author website, where she'll talk about topics including business and publishing, author news and events, and giving back to communities. You can find her in-depth monthly feature on the News & Media page of the Green Bean Collection website, discussing children's books and reading, early years education, living a greener lifestyle and all things Green Bean!
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