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The Knowledge: What children are reading and why it matters

Reading is probably the most important cognitive skill we teach children. It provides information about our world and it unlocks a gateway into rich histories and alternative worlds where animals talk and intergalactic battles are fought. Beyond language and literacy skills, reading can also build concentration, provide escapism, build empathy and enhance social experiences.

The annual What Kids Are Reading report from Renaissance reveals a worrying 4.4 per cent year-on-year decline in the number of books being read by children from years 1 to 11. Other than the first year of the pandemic, this is the first decrease since the research began in 2008.

During the pandemic, our research on learning loss and recovery identified a decline in pupil outcomes in reading. Teachers and schools across the country have worked diligently to tackle this challenge, and as a result pandemic-related learning loss has on average been recovered.

However, the effects have not been felt equally. The gap has widened between the highest and lowest attainers and between pupils from low-income backgrounds and their peers.

As well as the pandemic, it’s clear that wider interconnected challenges such as pupil absence, the rising cost of living and wider economic challenges are impacting pupils’ literacy.

Recent research shows teachers believe one-third (33 per cent) of their pupils are weak readers and that children are struggling to keep up with the curriculum due to their reading ability. Furthermore, one-quarter (26 per cent) of pupils are taken out of class for reading support for half a day of curriculum time per week on average.

This year’s What Kids Are Reading report therefore offers an important reminder that we cannot be complacent in our efforts to get children reading more and taking enjoyment from it.  

The report explores the favourite books and authors of over 1.2 million pupils. By examining the texts that children are reading and how well they are doing so, we can better understand how schools, parents and carers can support children and young people to become happy, confident and engaged readers.

Despite some of the challenges, there is still much to celebrate

One of the key takeaways from the findings is that children need to read more and engage with texts that are the right level of difficulty to stretch and build their reading skills without causing frustration. The research confirms the link between more reading time in school and higher reading attainment.

When considering Engaged Reading Time (ERT) and Cumulative Number of Words Read, we see further evidence of the impact of the time spent reading. The more time is allocated to reading, the greater the number of words read. And the biggest gains occur when ERT exceeds 30 minutes per day.

Strong reading skills are key to pupils’ success across subjects. By positioning reading as an activity to enjoy, teachers, parents and carers can help support improved reading skills, encouraging children to read more and to try more challenging texts. 

Despite some of the challenges, there is still much to celebrate. The report reveals the true depth and breadth of the books children read. It identifies which books and authors are most engaging pupils and it’s encouraging to see children turning to texts that offer more representation and feature aspirational role models.

When pupils can see themselves reflected in the literature they consume, they’re more likely to connect with it. This in turn can lead to reading for pleasure, where pupils are more likely to pay close attention to the content which stretches beyond their school years.

For teachers and parents, understanding the books children are enjoying is therefore essential in creating a culture of reading enjoyment.

Strong reading skills are vital to ensure all children reach their full academic potential and can excel in the subject areas they’re passionate about, from maths and science to history and art.

We must all therefore continue to ramp up our efforts to create a life-long love of reading among pupils by actively listening to them and being guided by their passions and motivations. This will be key to fostering the talents, intellect and wellbeing of our next generation.

Access the What Kids Are Reading 2024 report here

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