The transformational impact that reading has on a child’s life is well documented. Recent research suggests that learning to read and reading for pleasure can influence a child’s academic success, vocabulary development, mental health, ability to empathise, accept other cultures and even life expectancy.
However the data is interpreted, this makes the Department for Education’s report that 25% of children left UK primary schools in 2018 without having met the expected standard in reading particularly disheartening.1
As author Neil Gaiman said at The Reading Agency’s lecture (2013), “the simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.”
Reading is life
Before espousing the unquestionable benefits of reading books for pleasure, we need to address the stark fact that reading is necessary for life. Reading is navigating street signs, filling in forms, interpreting medicine labels, ordering from a menu, getting a job.
In England, approximately 5.1 million adults are considered to be ‘functionally illiterate’, meaning they do not possess the necessary literacy skills to carry out everyday tasks. If we truly believe that reading gives everyone a more equal chance at life, then we have to be brave in our efforts to address illiteracy.
Illiteracy costs money
The cost of people not being able to read and write is staggering. The World Literacy Foundation (2018) estimates that illiteracy costs the global economy over £1 trillion per year. It costs the UK economy around £36 billion.
Reading is more than getting through the next English lesson or standardised tests in school. If children are unable to read they can become disconnected from one another and society. The National Literacy Trust research (2014) highlights the relationship between poor literacy with health inequalities and employment outcomes. Significantly, around 50% of prisoners in the UK have literacy levels at or below that of an 11 year old.
Reading unlocks academic success across the curriculum
The Institute of Education’s research (2013) shows that children who read for pleasure are likely to do significantly better at school than children who do not.2 Their report highlighted a positive impact on results in spelling, vocabulary and other areas of the curriculum too, including maths. International research from OECD also highlights the advantage children have on their academic performance if they enjoy reading.3
If a child enters secondary school with a low reading age it’s harder for them to access other areas of the curriculum DfE (2016) as texts are not routinely read to students. They are likely to encounter several texts in any given day which they are expected to read independently. For students who are struggling, the embarrassment of their situation can lead to disengagement and acting out to disguise their reading issues.
The National Literacy Trust tell us that 70% of children who become permanently excluded from school struggle with basic literacy skills. It can become far more appealing to spend the day in the headteacher’s office than to endure the lesson that is way beyond reach. Even in maths lessons children will be reading. It’s the key to unlocking every facet of school life and to participate in every lesson.
Reading enriches our vocabulary
Learning to read fosters children’s vocabulary far beyond the island of the spoken word. At conversational level alone children will be exposed to just a small sample of words from our lexicon. Words children will likely hear in the home, on television and in the playground will be restricted in range and depth as it’s rarely through incidental talk that our full vocabulary is exercised.
Isabel Beck’s three tiers of vocabulary identifies just this. To help children broaden their vocabulary we must read to them and they must choose to read themselves, for pleasure. The riches of the English language can be found within the pages of beautifully written literature, and the more of these treasures our children uncover the better.
Reading connects us
The Reading Agency’s report (2015) showed the advantages of reading for pleasure going far beyond academic success. Their research demonstrated that reading for pleasure links to increased empathy, social cohesion, knowledge of other cultures, cultural capital and the ability to regulate moods and relax.4
Beyond our own participation in society, reading helps us to connect to people from other walks of life. A study by Dr. Josie Billington and The University of Liverpool revealed that books lead to a more tolerant and empathetic society. As many as half of UK adults say that reading makes them more sympathetic to other people’s beliefs.
Jessica Logan, in her study on the word gap, found that by the age of 5, children who have been read to every day in the home will have heard around 1.4 million more words when they start school than a child who has never been read to. This gives children from language-rich home environments not only an advantage when accessing the meaning of books in school but will help them make more sense of the world around them and therefore feel more connected to it.
Reading may help us live longer, happier lives
Apart from the obvious benefit (it makes you smarter!) reading can even make us live longer. Challenging and stimulating our brains through reading not only brings about great joy and academic success but the Altzheimer’s Society tell us it can also help reduce the risks of developing dementia, and a study at Yale University concluded that reading throughout our lives can extend life expectancy by almost two years.
It’s not just the physical health of our brains that will reap the benefits of reading, with regards to our mental and social health The Reading Agency’s 2015 study into ‘Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment’ found that reading brings about “increased empathy, improved relationships, reductions in symptoms of depression… and improved well being”. This is also reflected in the National Literacy Trust’s findings from a survey of nearly 50,000 UK school children showing those who enjoy reading and writing are significantly less likely to have mental health problems.5
Reading for pleasure matters
Every child has the right to master the essential skills for learning to read and living a literate life. But reading for pleasure is a right too. To teach children effectively, it is vital that we employ the latest scientific and academic research. Evidence overwhelmingly shows that reading engagement and enjoyment are essential. Reading has the power to change children’s lives. If we are serious about social justice and giving every child the best opportunities for life, it is vital that we teach children the skills to read and write alongside developing a love and curiosity for books.
In his speech at the Book Trust’s “Time to Read” lecture (2016) award-winning children’s writer Michael Morpurgo said, “So when it comes to reading and books, if we have failed to engage and enthuse generations of children, especially those millions from less advantageous backgrounds – and most certainly we have failed far too many of them – then for all of us, even here amongst so many who have striven to create a more literate society, it is mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”.
In essence, many talented and passionate professionals have been working to make change happen and get children reading. But there is still much work to be done. We need a better way…