In 2019, ten-year data examining the trend of students’ NAPLAN results found that while the majority of Australian students are showing better progress in reading, Year 5-7 students made six months less progress despite their numeracy progress remaining unaffected.
The report added to concerns that screen time is competing with books, especially as many young people unknowingly struggle with Internet Addiction.
However, a recent study 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.
A recently released libraries index reveals some key insights into the types of books that children, and adults, read during the pandemic.
The 2021 Civica Libraries Index assessed borrowing data from 34 million loans across 104 regional and metropolitan libraries in Australia and New Zealand between 1st April 2020 – 31st March 2021.
According to the data, escapist themed reads were the top pick during lockdown, with Australian authors becoming increasingly popular among borrowers. Sixty-five per cent of the top 20 borrowed books authored by Australians (up from 60% in 2020 and 40% in 2019).
Reading initiative sees unanticipated benefits
Sue McKerracher, CEO of the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA), said that while local book awards have played an important part in the prominence of many of these Australian authors, it’s also driven in part through campaigns like Australia Reads which encourages people to pick up and read a book.
She says that in a normal year, public libraries would run more than 120,000 rhymetimes and storytimes for pre-schoolers, with an estimated 3.1 million participants.
“During lockdown periods, families couldn’t attend in person, so we made a special copyright arrangement with book publishers to allow storytimes to be recorded and uploaded to library websites and social media platforms,” McKerracher told The Educator.
“This had unanticipated benefits, reaching not only storytime regulars, but also working parents, who hadn’t been able to take their kids to events during the week, and people living in rural and remote Australia that were too far from their nearest library to be frequent visitors”.
McKerracher said that while the original agreement was to the end of 2020, online storytime proved so successful that ALIA created a pilot program for 2021 with libraries paying a subscription fee to use a nominated list of picture books for recordings.
“This means publishers can earn a small amount, there’s additional exposure for Australian authors and illustrators, and it encourages families to read together,” she explained.
“School libraries were already offering older children access to e-books prior to the pandemic, but COVID meant a significant investment in making more electronic resources available to students at home. Schools applauded their library staff for moving seamlessly into the e-environment”.
McKerracher said anecdotally, children and young people read at least the same amount of books and probably more during lockdown, especially with the support of their school libraries.
“While book borrowing for print materials was lower during lock down, borrowing figures for e-books in most public libraries showed at least a 30 per cent increase, and in many cases, this was much higher,” she said.
“This was mirrored in the retail market, where bookshops had a bumper year. In the first eight months of 2020, children’s, young adult and education sales were up by 7 per cent according to Nielsen BookScan, and the increase across all ages was 7.8 per cent for 2020 as a whole”.
Families must keep reading to their kids
ALIA runs National Simultaneous Storytime, in which picture books are simultaneously read in libraries, schools, pre-schools, childcare centres, homes and bookshops around the country to encourage reading amongst children.
She said this year’s event, held on 19 May, was the biggest yet, with 1.98 million readers at more than 33,000 locations, primarily in Australia and New Zealand, but with libraries in Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America participating too.
“Beaming storytime from the International Space Station was the draw card - but the book Give me some space!, by Philip Bunting, read by astronaut Dr Shannon Walker, carries some underlying messages about girls in science and the importance of looking after our planet,” she said.
“The book was linked with an experiment, which saw thousands of students doing temperature checks in their locations the week before the reading”.
McKerracher said that while this year’s National Simultaneous Storytime was so successful, it should not be a once-off event.
“The important thing is to make sure that families continue to read with their kids, not only in the early years, but throughout primary school”.
Libraries still key to reading outcomes
Civica, provider of the cloud-based Spydus library management system to schools, TAFEs and local government, partnered with the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) to create the Index.
Iain Finlayson, Managing Director of Libraries and Education Solutions at Civica, said school libraries have done “a fantastic job” in offering pupils the opportunity to access a diverse and modern range of resources to keep children engaged and excited by reading.
“The school library may be the only access to library facilities for some students, and by reviewing how this data has changed over the last two to three years you can see how important it is for libraries to keep their content fresh to keep pupils engaged in reading,” he told The Educator.
“It is fantastic to see content from Australian authors like Andy Griffith’s Treehouse series remain so popular, and also the continued rise of Anh Do with his multiple series of books really capturing young readers imagination”.
Finlayson said his own children were excited when the school library purchased the Anh Do Wolf Girl series and were able to discuss the books with their friends over the next several months.
In terms of takeaways based on the data for Australian school libraries, Finlayson said the expectation is that e-books are now a standard offering of a library.
“Access to these resources is becoming increasingly easier and they have the added advantage of offering regularly refreshed content,” he said.
“School libraries should consider adding e-book offerings to their facilities to keep the library service offering current”.
The rise and rise of e-books
Finlayson said there is a long-established correlation between independent reading and academic achievement, adding that the provision of the school library is key to supporting to this.
“E-resources give pupil’s access to a wider range of content than the school library has traditionally been able to, and today’s students are comfortable engaging with e-content,” he said.
Finlayson says providing access to e-resources can further broaden the reach of the library for students who may not have the time to use the physical facility fully.
“E-books and audio book offerings are fast becoming an expected service from libraries of all types. However, it remains important that school libraries continue to invest in physical books in addition to e-resources to support the individual reading preferences of all students”.