The decline in ‘reading for pleasure’
Back in 2016, just 59% of young people professed that they read for pleasure; we probably thought that was our lowest nadir. How wrong we were.
Fast forward to 2023, and it seems the journey into the abyss was incomplete. The Literacy Trust’s recent research places this score at just 44% now, an alarming figure when considering that the study takes into account children from age 8 to 18. A glimmer of light appears when we see that the gender gap has decreased, then one realises that this is simply because girls’ positivity has fallen by 5%. And we can’t honestly celebrate because boys’ attitudes have ‘stood still.’
There are also all the familiar undercurrents of these trends being more pronounced amongst disadvantaged children, with plummeting rates around daily reading, availability of books and encouragement at home.
The Sutton Trust’s recent research focussing on ‘higher attaining’ 17 and 18 year olds also emphasises the importance of parental engagement, teachers as role models and access to technology as playing a crucial role not only in outcomes, but - equally as importantly - young people’s self perception of the quality of their education and life chances. View this alongside the sobering statistic that disadvantaged high attainers achieve around three quarters of a grade less than their more advantaged peers, and the picture becomes even clearer.
Nothing in life is free: our attention is the product
Yes, the Pandemic played a role. We can’t get away from it, but the Pirls study showed, at least in part, that Britain’s young people in their entirety weren’t necessarily disproportionately impacted by it. As far back as 1973, artist Richard Serra mused that ‘if something is free, then you are the product.’ The product is our time, energy and focus. And our young people are most susceptible to the charms of silicon valley engineers.
In the immortal words of John Lennon, “life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.” Pandemics, economic downturns, school funding and the advance of technology literally designed to bleed us dry of our attention is part of life, and sadly, young people - especially disadvantaged young people - are more vulnerable to it.
But we won’t address the issue unless we come to terms with the kind of world our young people are growing up in. Our world of five TV channels. Our world where we all magically played outside until sunset with our peers. Our world with the novelty of digital TV and satellite subscription. Those worlds have come and gone. We’re now into the era of apps and online games that have been designed to drain our attention.
Reframing the issue
So it begs the question: is this a war we can win? We can easily find ourselves in the realms of moral panic. This is why, in and of itself, having a goal of ‘reading for pleasure’ is unhelpful; trying to bottle intrinsic motivation is like trying to nail fog to a wall, so why try?
Yes, our young people are growing up in a world that offers less organic opportunities to encounter texts. The job of providing the contexts for ‘pleasurable reading’ is tougher than ever.
Johann Hari’s recent work, Stolen Focus, makes for fascinating reading. Most pointedly, he says-
"The truth is that you are living in a system that is pouring acid on your attention every day, and then you are being told to blame yourself and to fiddle with your own habits while the world's attention burns."
So maybe it’s time to frame the debate in a different way. Using constructs of war and victory/loss is unhelpful.
A hopeful future?
Teaching has not stood still in recent years. The profession has admirably embraced research and educational theory around cognitive science, recognising the realities of the mind. We’ve reframed what concepts like ‘direct instruction’ mean, and schools are thinking more purposefully about the sequencing of powerful knowledge so that young people are equipped with what they need to succeed.
Initiatives such as DRET Reads, in which learners are provided with structured, guided reading sessions, have been taken up and used in other settings. It might sound counterintuitive to the notion of ‘reading for pleasure’ but in many cases, how else will some pupils gain the confidence to have a book in their hands whilst developing the stamina to stay with a story that the author can take them on? If we focus solely on promoting reading for pleasure, we risk finding ourselves at the well-worn aphorism known in literacy circles as the ‘Matthew Effect’; fluent readers read more, causing them to become even better readers, while non-fluent readers shy away from reading.
Educational technology also offers us new and exciting solutions to putting relevant knowledge in the hands of the learner, whilst empowering teachers with the knowledge they need to intervene. Bedrock’s own tier 2 vocabulary, tier 3 vocabulary and grammar curricula not only offer a more granular framework for young people to experience ‘powerful knowledge’ in a range of fiction and non-fiction contexts, but it also empowers teachers with the crucial knowledge about where to intervene.
Empowering schools and teachers to make the difference
Yes, the world is more distracted than ever. But education is also smarter than perhaps it has ever been.
It’s time that we embraced this challenge and recognised the role of the teacher as a crucial representative of so many things: a role model, a conduit not only of knowledge, but of powerful knowledge that can give young people the power to shape their own lives.