Last year, an OECD report found that Australia’s 15-year-olds have been experiencing a marked decline in reading skills, and a more recent study shows the trend is likely to improve any time soon.
Recent analysis of PIRLS trend data in IEA’s Compass Brief Troubling trends: An international decline in attitudes toward reading found that overall, attitudes to reading in grade four students and their parents have been declining over 15 years, since 2001.
In recent years, there have been growing concerns that Internet addiction is not only adversely affecting young people’s communication skills and cognitive health, but also their reading habits.
For instance, a study by two academics from the University of Maryland – professor of psychology, Patricia Alexander and Ph.D. candidate in educational psychology, Lauren Singer Trakhman – found that while students believe they perform better after reading on screens, their actual performance tends to suffer.
As COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease across Australia, attention is turning to what educators, parents and governments can learn regarding the impact that the pandemic had on children’s learning.
When it comes to what bearing that tumultuous time had on children’s reading habits, new research out of New Zealand offers some interesting insights.
The study, conducted by the University of Canterbury, suggests that children’s joy of reading physical books has remained intact despite the massive uptick in tech adoption and use during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know COVID-19 and its associated changes to our work and learning habits caused a marked increase in the use of technology,” Kathryn MacCallum, an Associate Professor of Digital Education Futures at the University’s School of Educational Studies and Leadership, wrote in The Conversation.
“More surprising, perhaps, is the impact these lockdowns have had on children’s and young people’s self-reported enjoyment of books and the overall positive impact this has made on reading rates”.
Assoc/Prof MacCallum pointed to a recent survey from the UK which showed children were spending 34.5% more time reading than they were before lockdown. Their perceived enjoyment of reading had increased by 8%.
“This seems logical — locked down with less to do means more time for other activities. But with the increase in other distractions, especially the digital kind, it’s encouraging to see many young people still gravitate towards reading, given the opportunity,” she noted.
“In general, most children still read physical books, but the survey showed a small increase in their use of audiobooks and digital devices. Audiobooks were particularly popular with boys and contributed to an overall increase in their interest in reading and writing”.
However, Assoc Prof MacCallum says there is “no doubt” that digital texts are becoming more commonplace in schools, and there is a growing body of research exploring their influence.
“One such study showed no direct relationship between how often teachers used digital reading instruction and activities and their students’ actual engagement or reading confidence,” she explained.
“What the study did show, however, was a direct, negative relationship between how often teachers had their students use computers or tablets for reading activities and how much the students liked reading”.
Assoc/Prof MacCallum says these findings suggest physical books continue to play a critical role in fostering young children’s love of reading and learning.
“At a time when technology is clearly influencing reading habits and teaching practices, can we really expect the love of reading to be fostered by sitting alone on a digital device?”
The limitations of eBooks
Assoc/Prof MacCallum said that while eBooks are being used to support independent reading, over-reliance has meant losing the potential for engagement and conversation.
“Studies have shown children perform better when reading with an adult, and this is often a richer experience with a print book than with an eBook,” Assoc/Prof MacCallum said.
“Reading when we’re young is still a communal experience. My own seven-year-old is at the age when reading to me at night is a crucial part of his development as a reader. Relying on him to sit on his own and read from his device will never work”.
However, Assoc/Prof MacCallum points out that this is not to deny the usefulness of eBooks.
“Their adoption in schools has been led by the desire to better support learners. They provide teachers with an extensive library of titles and features designed to entice and motivate,” she said.
“These embedded features provide new ways of helping children decode language and also offer vital support for children with special needs, such as dyslexia and impaired vision. The research, however, suggests caution rather than a wholesale adoption of eBooks”.
Assoc/Prof MacCallum said studies have shown the extra features of eBooks, such as pop-ups, animation and sound, can actually distract the learner, detracting from the reading experience and reducing comprehension of the text.
The book as object
Assoc/Prof MacCallum said real books may lack these interactive features, but their visual and tactile nature plays a strong role in engaging the reader.
“Because books exist in the same physical space as their readers — scattered and found objects rather than apps on a screen — they introduce the role of choice, one of the big influences on engagement,” she said.
“While generally a reluctant reader, my child loves to flick through books and look at the pictures. He might not necessarily read every word, but books such as Dog Man, Captain Underpants and Bad Guys have provided a fantastic opportunity to engage him”.
Assoc/Prof MacCallum pointed out that reading has also been linked with children’s favourite online games.
“Their Minecraft manuals have become valuable resources and are even taken to friends’ houses on play-dates,” she said.
“Many of our books are not in the best shape, evidence they are lived with and loved. Second-hand shops and school fairs provide a cheap option for adding variety, and libraries are also valuable for supplementing the home shelves”.
However, Assoc/Prof MacCallum said cuts to library budgets and collections, such as have been announced recently by Wellington Central Library, threaten to further undermine the role of the physical book in children’s lives.
“School libraries, too, are often the first space to be sacrificed when budgets and space restrictions tighten,” she said.
“This encourages the uptake of digital books and further reinforces a reliance on technological alternatives”.
‘Reading is much more than books’
Dr Matthew Zbaracki, State Head of Education in Victoria, said parents and teachers should be looking at different ways to encourage, engage, and hook children to read.
“While there is no one answer to how this can best be done there are several strategies that can be implemented,” Dr Zbaracki told The Educator.
He said the first strategy should involve helping students find their interests.
“Most readers, whether child or adult enjoy reading what they are interested in,” he said.
“It is crucial that parents and teachers identify what their child’s interests are and find books that align with them”.
Next, he says, is expanding the definition of text.
“Many times, parents and teachers may say that a child is not a reader because they do not read books,” Dr Zbaracki said.
“However, it is important to note that reading is more than books, it may also include, newspapers, magazines, online text, comics, graphic novels, short stories, and audible texts all have key elements of reading”.
Finally, Dr Zbaracki said a shared passion for reading is critical if students are to get authentically engaged in this important skill.
“One of the most beautiful moments that parents and teachers can share with children is a passion for reading,” he said.
“This could be reading with or even to a child. No matter what age the child is it is important to instil the value of reading with a child and there is no better way to do that then reading aloud to children”.
Dr Zbaracki said parents should enjoy the time they spend together with their child and experience new stories and ideas.
“I hope that these three ideas of Interests, Text, and Passion help your children to engage with books and discover the joys that reading has to offer”.