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When did reading become ‘uncool’?

Reading for fun declines between ages eight and nine, according to a new report. IB World magazine investigates why, and how IB teachers and parents are working to change this.

Reading for pleasure helps to build literacy, confidence, well-being, development, educational attainment and social skills. If established at a young age, it can inspire a long lasting love of reading, offering a fun way to let imaginations run wild, and an exploration of different places and life experiences.

But, the number of children who think of themselves as “frequent readers” significantly decreases between ages eight and nine, according to the 2018 Kids and Family Reading Report, from publishing company Scholastic.

The survey of more than 1,000 children aged six to 17, and their parents, revealed that 57% of eight-year-olds say they read books for fun, five to seven days each week. But only 35% of nine-year-olds report similar reading habits. The number of children who say they love reading goes from 40% (eight-year-olds) to 28% (nine-year-olds). Scholastic calls this the “decline by nine”.

This is concerning given that research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in the US, has previously shown that reaching reading proficiency by third grade (eight to nine years old) is a clear predictor of academic success.

In addition, separate studies have found that girls are more likely than boys to be frequent readers in almost every developed country, and are more likely to have positive attitudes towards reading. An OECD global study, in 2009, found that, on average, only about half of boys said they read for enjoyment, compared to roughly three-quarters of girls.  Reading for pleasure is a habit that can prove integral to performing well in the classroom, according to the OECD.

Avoid the ‘decline by nine’

The reasons for a decline in reading activity vary. Demands on children’s time as they get older, such as extracurricular activities, play a part. As a 16-year-old respondent says: “I really don’t have time to read any books that I want. I liked it better when I was younger and could read whatever I wanted.”

There is a misunderstanding that children should only read books that are at their reading level. But this is wrong. “What they are reading isn’t as important as the fact that they are reading,” Mary Alice Garber, a buyer in the children and teens department at Politics and Prose, in the US, told The Atlantic magazine. “Parents should encourage free-range reading, and let children choose whatever interests them.”

Comic books and graphic novels should be welcomed, as they are just as sophisticated as other forms of reading. Children can benefit from reading them at least as much as they do from reading other types of books, according to Professor Carol Tilley, from the Department of Library and Information Science, at the University of Illinois. There is evidence that comic books increase children’s vocabulary and instil a love of reading.

She comments: “If reading is to lead to any meaningful knowledge or comprehension, readers must approach a text with an understanding of the relevant social, linguistic and cultural conventions. And, if you really consider how the pictures and words work together to tell a story, you can make the case that comics are just as complex as any other kind of literature.”

Leading by example is one of the best ways to encourage reading. IB parent Adina Lav explains: “I encourage my children to read by reading myself – they see me as an example. I also carve out family reading time, when we each read our own books.”

Although addictive devices can also be blamed for being too distracting, and deterring children from reading, there is no need to ban technology, believes Lav. “The best way is to marry reading and technology,” she says.

Introducing children to a wide variety of texts, mediums and genres includes online stories and eBooks. This can make reading more desirable. But it is worth noting that several small studies have suggested that reading on paper, instead of an electronic screen, is better for memory retention and focus.

Reading shouldn’t be seen as a chore, but rather an alternative gateway to learning more about the world around us, as well as a great form of escapism.

Lav adds: “Be engaged in what your children are reading. Read with them, either in parallel, or reading the same books. Talk about books, and make visits to your local library a family affair.”

9 top tips to make reading fun

Head Librarian Anthony Tilke, at American School of The Hague, in The Netherlands, offers tips to encourage students to read for pleasure:

  1. Encourage, don’t pressure.
  2. Re-reading books is fine.
  3. Short books (novellas) are good, as are graphic and illustrated books.
  4. Ask a librarian – either at school or a local, public library – for advice and reading material.
  5. Cultivate the art of passive support. For example, leave books around the house, rather than putting them into an unwilling child’s hand.
  6. Accept that your child will face different pressures as they grow. This is natural. If they read just one or two books a year, it is important to value that. Reading stamina is helpful, and may assist students in later years.
  7. Reading looks different in various circumstances: Be open to that. For example, digital and print, and in different formats such as books, novellas, graphic books, magazines (both electronic and in print), ebooks, etc. Don’t equate reading with fiction.
  8. Lead by example – don’t require children to do what you don’t or won’t do yourself. If adults don’t value reading, it is unsurprising if children follow suit. Reading is an aspect of lifelong learning.
  9. Provide opportunities for children to see and hear – and be enthused – by an author, for example attend book readings and fairs.