Getting young people to read

Shaping attitudes toward reading

Crowther Centre February 20th, 2024 · 7 minute read

Achievement, Engagement, Enjoyment and Wellbeing

Reading is central to academic success and positive student achievement outcomes. Reading is also linked to positive wellbeing in young people, as well as improved empathy, increased understanding of self and a better understanding of their place in the world.

Our experience of reading is shaped by our families. From a very young age, our children have a clear sense of who is reading, what they are reading and whether reading is valued. As parents, we are our children’s first literacy teachers and the ways we engage with reading will fundamentally shape our children’s attitudes.

Academic achievement

It is widely accepted that reading plays a vital role in student achievement. It improves the literacy skills needed to both learn and to demonstrate learning through writing and speaking. Students who read more than their peers achieve higher marks in assessments, become more involved in class discussions and develop superior reading comprehension and writing styles (St Clair-Thompson, Graham, A. & Marsham, S., 2018).

Reading develops vocabulary and contextual knowledge which is essential for reading comprehension across all discipline areas. Interestingly, reading for pleasure has been related to stronger progress in subjects such as Mathematics (Sullivan & Brown 2015) and Science (Zhu, 2022).

Furthermore, there is emerging research which suggests a strong link between reading achievement and the ability to accurately access digital information. Reading deeply and frequently helps support students to build the skills needed to navigate the increasingly complex online world (Merga, 2023).

Ultimately, being able to read (and write) well is profoundly transformative, and essential for health and wellbeing. (Snow, 2016).

Reading engagement

Reading engagement or motivation to read relates to both the frequency of reading, as well as the enjoyment of reading.
Reading is a fundamentally social activity and young people require ongoing support to become engaged readers. The ways in which families, schools and friends show that they value reading have a strong influence on the way young people perceive themselves as readers. Additionally, young readers need ‘an environment conducive to reading, that provides time, resources and space to make this possible’ (Merga, 2017d, in Merga, 2023 p. 3).

Over the past 10 years, we have seen a decline in the reading engagement scores among adolescents, particularly boys. The latest PISA testing, which is an international measure of student achievement noted, a dramatic reduction in the time or frequency students spend reading, as well as their self-reported enjoyment of reading (OECD, 2023). This is concerning because there is a positive correlation between reading motivation, the amount or frequency of reading and what is understood (comprehension) (Troyer et al, 2019 in Merga, 2023).

In other words, the more motivated a person is to read, the better they get at reading, which leads to further motivation to read and so on. This positive cycle leads to improvements in overall academic engagement and achievement.

For younger children, the benefits of being read-to are well-researched and well-established. These benefits endure throughout life and have a powerful impact on your child’s wellbeing and success at school. For example:

  • Reading exposes your child to rich vocabulary enabling them to understand more complex texts and concepts (Merga, 2019)
  • Children who are read-to are more motivated to read independently (Sargeant, Hill and Morrison, 2007)
  • Children who are read-to read more than those who are not read-to (Snow et al, 2001)
  • Reading helps build relationships; spending time sharing stories is both pleasurable and helps create positive experiences (Anderson and Morrison 2007, McGillivray et al, 2010)
  • Reading with your child can ‘condition your child’s brain to associate reading with pleasure’ (Trelease, 2019).

For your child, this means that attention is a vital part of learning. During class, it is essential that students are engaged in listening to the explanations of the teacher and are thinking deeply about the content. Learners need to then link this new knowledge to skills they learned last lesson and last week. Through our Effective Learner teaching model, teachers check for understanding through short activities (answer a question, write a sentence). This is a powerful process for maximising learning.

However, once something is learned and stored in our long-term memories that idea isn’t static. It’s often quite fragile, and the neural pathways representing that memory will degrade over time unless we reactivate them (Ebbinghaus, 1885; Wozniak & Gorzelanczyk, 1994).

We all forget based on a forgetting curve. If we don’t revise information, we slowly forget it more and more (as in the white line below). If we do revise it regularly over time, our memories grow stronger (green lines below), and we forget more slowly after each retrieval.

What can parents do to create a supportive reading environment?

  • Create and maintain reading routines. Good readers make reading a habit. Many families have bedtime reading routines when their children are young, but these tend to drop off when children begin to be able to read independently. Having a routine where everyone (even you!) reads before bed is both conducive to good sleep, as well as habit forming.
  • Protect reading time. While technology is a fact of life, it takes up time and interrupts focus. Create some agreed tech-free times for reading (before bed is a good time).
  • Make reading a pleasure. The research is clear; when we enjoy reading, we read more. Create positive associations around reading by reading to or with your children (even when they are older). Talk about the books you read, share your experiences of reading with your children. Never use reading as a ‘punishment’.
  • Show you value reading. Display your books; the visible presence of adult books in the home is a key measure of academic achievement for children. Read where the children can see you. Spend time going to libraries or bookshops. Read your children’s set texts for English. Join a book club.
  • Reward reading. While research suggests that intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation, it is important to acknowledge and affirm your children as readers.

Reading and technology

While it is difficult to find data directly confirming a link between increased use of technology and lower reading engagement scores, it is a fact that reading engagement scores have fallen as the use of electronic devices and gaming has increased. Perhaps young people have become accustomed to short, immediate dopamine-hitting forms of media, and traditional reading feels less exciting and more effortful.

Reading (and learning more generally) requires sustained concentration. Smartphones, apps, and the constant access to technology are undoubtedly affecting the way we focus. Writer and researcher, Johan Hari’s, Stolen Focus (2021), suggests that the average office worker concentrates for three minutes before being interrupted. Some recent research undertaken by the American research organisation Commonsense Media (2021) found that the average teenager spends eight hours per day on screens, not including time spent on formal study and that they are utilising devices concurrently, for example, reading a novel and responding to messages on social media.

Despite teenagers’ protestations to the contrary, we do not have the capacity to focus on multiple things at once and multitasking negatively impacts our ability to concentrate deeply. This is the world we are living in, and we need to give our teens tools and strategies to help them balance their time.

How parents can help

  • Set limits on times around technology. For younger children this might look like no tech after dinner. For teenagers, you might negotiate a no phone rule when studying or reading.
  • Model good tech behaviour. This is perhaps the hardest thing for parents. While we probably all agree young people spend too much time online, most of us are spending too much time online ourselves! Our children will absorb and mimic what we do, regardless of what we say.
  • Have non-negotiable rules around phones in bedrooms at night. Phones, sleep and teenagers are a bad combination. In addition to taking up reading time, phones interfere with sleep which has a detrimental effect on overall wellbeing.


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Beck, I., McKeown, M. & Kucan, L. (2012) Bringing Words to Life, Second Edition: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, The Guildford Press, New York

Elleman, A. M., & Oslund, E. L. (2019). Reading Comprehension Research: Implications for Practice and Policy. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 6(1), 3-11.

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Hari, J. (2021) Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention and how to think deeply again, Crown Publishing Group, New York

Merga, M. (2023) Creating a Reading Culture in Primary and Secondary Schools, A Practical Guide, Facet Publishing

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OECD (2023), Reading performance (PISA) (indicator). doi: 10.1787/79913c69-en (Accessed on 23 November 2023)

Ozturk, G., Hill, S., Yates, G. (2016) Girls, boys and early reading: parents’ gendered views about literacy and children’s attitudes towards reading, Early Child Development and Care, Vol 186, No 5, 703-715

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St Clair-Thompson, Graham, A. & Marsham, S. (2018) Exploring the Reading Practices of Undergraduate Students, Education Inquiry, 9:3, 284-298, DOI: 10.1080/20004508.2017.1380487

Sullivan, B. & Brown, M (2015) Reading for pleasure and progress in vocabulary and mathematics British Educational Research Journal, 41 (6), 971-991.

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Zhu, Y (2022) Reading matter more than mathematics in science learning: An analysis of the relationship between student achievement in reading, mathematics and science. International Journal of Science Education, 44 (1), 1 – 17


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