Did you love to read as a teenager? I know I did. I can remember Mum coming into my room during the summer holidays and telling me to go outside – and me thinking that reading was a much better use of my time! Reading for pleasure has been a pastime that has shaped my life, and these days I couldn’t imagine life without several books on the go.
But what of this generation of teens? You know, the digital natives who’ve been raised on iPads, who build complex worlds in Minecraft and dance for TikTok? These days in the summer holidays, parents could say “touch grass” and their kids would know they need to go outside. But it’s unlikely that they’ll want to get off the internet, and it’s even more unlikely that they will read a book.
According to research from Deakin University, around 40% of Australian teens are not making space for reading in their daily lives.
The researchers surveyed 3,000 teens, aged 11 to 18, and found that many of them are so focussed on the reading that they have to do to meet their school curriculum that reading for fun misses out.
There’s a strong association among teens between reading and high academic achievement, and there’s a group of kids who feel like reading is just not their thing. Many of the teens were brutally honest, saying that they would rather be doing other things or that there were no books out there for them.
The Deakin study also found that there is a lack of high-quality books for low-literacy readers – those students who might be well into their teens but have a relatively low reading level. It's frightening to learn that some students in Year 9 are writing at a Year 3 level – and that some teachers believe there is too much focus on reading, with not enough on writing. Surely, the two go hand-in-hand? Good readers can make good writers, especially when you add reading for pleasure into the mix.
Overall, this data makes me sad and confused, especially when there’s such a big market for young adult (YA) fiction in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald quotes the value of the YA market at $34 million, and talks about the rise of the BookTokker – the online influencers encouraging teens to read.
So, with BookTokkers pointing kids in the right direction, what else is missing? Associate Professor Leonie Rutherford from Deakin's School of Communication and Creative Arts says:
"Digital technologies and peer-to-peer connectivity now work as an interdependent system connecting young audiences with content and, via social media, new cultural influences. Traditional cultural mediators, such as teachers, youth librarians, publishers and booksellers are not a significant presence in these social media spaces.”
This breaks my heart. Yep, I was a geek with my nose in a book all the time. And my librarian in primary school had a huge influence on me, pointing me in the direction of books that I might like and celebrating my reading discoveries with me.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I believe the role of the teacher-librarian cannot be underestimated and it is my sincere hope that more teenagers will engage with people who know and love books, and who have an infinite passion for sharing that knowledge.
The researchers said that the parental role in modelling reading behaviour and placing a high value on reading for pleasure are both important. This fantastic article in The Conversation talks about just how important it is that kids take up reading because it’s fun:
“Various studies have shown children’s enjoyment of reading is related to a longer life, better mental well-being and healthier eating. Fiction reading is related to better performance at school.
But reading for pleasure is also good for communities because readers tend to be good at making decisions, have more empathy and are likely to value other people and the environment more.”
In my personal experience, there’s a direct link between reading for pleasure and engaging the power of the imagination. And this leads to creativity in so many ways – problem-solving, communication, planning, even managing relationships.
Don't get me wrong – digital platforms can lead to creativity too. Anyone who has witnessed some of the spectacular worlds kids build on Minecraft will understand. I believe that tapping into these passions is a way to lead them into reading for pleasure. Perhaps even on the sly, like making sure a few books about Minecraft turn up on birthdays and during visits to the library.
And, in my mind, encouraging reading from the get-go cannot be a bad thing. Many moons ago I was fortunate enough to live in Toronto for six months while my daughter was a baby. Upon joining the local playgroup, we received a free bag of books and toys designed especially to encourage literacy in the early years. What forward-thinking from the government in Ontario!
The Conversation article mentioned above also suggests that doctors can prescribe reading together for younger parents of small children. This is where the foundation is laid and, with luck and a lot of perseverance, the love of reading can persist all the way through to the teen years.
I’ll keep you updated on the progress of the study from Deakin. They are continuing to investigate the role that reading plays in young people’s lives and I believe this will lead to good strategies to increase engagement – and reading for fun – in the future.
Until then, I hope you’ll find some time in your busy week for a good book or even a few good articles to heighten your sense of reading pleasure.