Research: Why, how and with whom do children read?

New research sheds light on children’s reading habits and wellbeing and draws out some interesting gender distinctions, writes Rachel Crowdy

New research sheds light on children’s reading habits and wellbeing and draws out some interesting gender distinctions, writes Rachel Crowdy

23 May 2022, 5:00

Our series of reports under the ‘Impact in Practice’ banner are designed to help schools learn about what is working in other schools, particularly as they navigate the challenges of pandemic recovery. The first of these focused on the link between disadvantage, learning and wellbeing, and our latest, ‘Reading Well’, explores the link between reading and wellbeing. It focuses on understanding when, how and why children read and what schools and parents can do to promote reading in support of wellbeing and learning.

By partnering with the National Literacy Trust, Place2Be and Innovations for Learning UK, the Reading Well project was able to gather data from over 80,000 pupils across England. And the results highlight some striking trends, particularly in relation to gender differences.

Those pupils with the greatest confidence in their reading abilities tended to be the ones who reported better wellbeing and less anxiety. Pupils who scored a 5 in confidence in reading (the highest level) had wellbeing levels that were 31.8 percentage points higher, and anxiety levels that were 20.8 percentage points lower than pupils who scored a 1.

The relationship between reading ability, reading confidence and wellbeing is complex, but it was evident from the survey results that gender was a strong predictor of levels of wellbeing and anxiety. Our earlier research, ‘Lockdown Lessons’, found that female pupils experience wellbeing levels 7.5 percentage points lower, and anxiety levels 9.3 percentage points higher, than their male peers. And while this data was gathered during the peak of the pandemic in 2020, that trend remains relatively similar now. 

Gendered attitudes to reading don’t start and end in the classroom

Reading Well casts more light on this issue. Female and male pupils have approximately similar assessments of their own reading ability. But female pupils are less confident when reading out loud and are more concerned about what other pupils think of their reading.

Pupils’ motivations for reading also had a gendered dimension. Almost half of female pupils said they read because it gives them a break, while just over a quarter of boys said the same. More girls recognised the benefits of reading for their mental wellbeing and almost half of girls surveyed agreed that reading makes them feel better, compared with a third of boys.  

We’ve suggested that schools may want to communicate the wellbeing benefits of reading to parents and carers to further strengthen the case for reading at home. This is particularly important for girls, who seem to place greater emphasis on the wellbeing benefits of reading relative to boys.

When working with parents, however, it’s important to note that gendered attitudes to reading don’t start and end in the classroom.

When we looked into when and where pupils read and with whom, we found that adult engagement in reading can benefit pupils of all ages, even older pupils. Those most likely to be independent readers in key stages 4 and 5 still expressed a desire for the opportunity to discuss their reading with an adult and to share recommendations for further reading with a parent or carer.

That’s encouraging, but where pupils do read with someone at home – which is the case for 77 per cent of key stage 2 pupils and around half of key stage 3 pupils – it is twice as likely they read with their mother than with their father.

That begs important questions around how the load of parenting is split and how this influences children’s attitudes to the activity of reading. Unpicking that is also complex and multi-faceted, but our recommendation is simple: schools can signpost all parents to ways they can hold positive reading conversations with their children, noting that reading is a joint effort, not just something for schools.

We all know that reading brings academic benefits, and our research suggests there is a further important wellbeing benefit too – which appears particularly important for girls.  

Our report is designed to help schools embed and encourage reading in the most impactful ways possible, and we hope these research findings offer some food for thought for how this might be achieved.

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