Can we boost reading by recovering the lost art of being still?

Alison David

November 1st 2013 by Alison David

It won’t come as a surprise to you that a recurring theme in the first two chapters of our Reading Street study (Reading and Home and Reading and School) has been the influence of the digital world.

Both the parents and the teachers we’ve spoken to have said that the rise in children’s time spent on screens is a challenge to the time dedicated to reading for pleasure.

It’s tempting to make digital or screen-based activity the bogeyman when it comes to reading for pleasure. And it’s easy to see why, when headlines about children’s short attention spans and lack of ability to concentrate fill our news and when we read that the average screen time for children aged 5–16 is now 6.5 hours a day, compared to less than 5 hours a day in 2005. And at the same time we hear from the National Literacy Trust that only 28% of 8–16 year olds read every day, compared to 30% in 2011 and 40% in 2005.

But it’s simply not as straightforward as that. Reading for pleasure is being squeezed, but there’s a lot more to the story.

Chapter three (Reading and the Digital World), released today, has found that children’s habitual screen use is affecting reading. This century has seen family life become increasingly busy; we found that often parents experience guilt about the lack of time they spend with their children. They worry that their children will feel left out, or left behind if they don’t have the latest gadget. We discovered that this worry is so powerful that technology is prioritised whatever a family’s financial situation.

We’ve also seen the huge pressure parents are under in their own lives. They feel they need to fill every minute of their days and think their children should too, worried that they might get bored, often seeing down time, ‘doing-nothing’ time as wasted time. Screen time is often used to fill the gaps.

Does it matter?  We think so. It means the quiet moments, when a child might pick up a book, are reduced.  Children are often over-stimulated by screens, some using devices long after bedtime. Minds are noisy, they can’t concentrate, they flit from one form of entertainment to another and using multiple devices simultaneously is the norm.  Childwise data tells us that when online, 39% of children say they also watch TV, 34% use a phone to talk or text and 12% say they read a book.

We think the key is rediscovering the lost art of being still, having a still mind, quiet and reflective moments, and time off-line to enable sustained concentration.

In this busy screen dominated world many children aren’t in the habit of reading and find books off-putting. That includes reading on e-readers.   To date, children’s e-reading has been less successful than adults.  In 2012 4.5% of children’s books sold were eBooks, compared to 18% for adults’.     We know about half of UK households now have a tablet or e-reader but they aren’t used for reading, more for video or games based media.

But, we also know the world hasn’t changed that much, children still love stories.  Over half of the Mums and Dads we spoke to appreciate reading and say their child adores story time.   Parents want their children to read more, 53% wish they had more time to read to their child and 28% are uncomfortable that they don’t read to them more.  Although screen time may affect children’s reading time at home, 81% of teachers don’t think all is lost.  Despite the challenges, Reading Street has observed families where reading thrives, where children both fervently read and game.  In these families quiet time is consciously carved out for reading.

So, while the digital world brings us fantastic opportunities it also creates children (and adults) who find it hard to concentrate for sustained lengths of time. How do we preserve the art of reading for pleasure?  Do we even want to?  To me it’s clear we have to – because reading for pleasure is the single biggest indicator of a child’s success academically, more than social background or parents’ education. Children who read for pleasure have increased concentration, memory, confidence; have greater self-esteem and general knowledge. Reading builds empathy, improves imagination and language development.

Despite the attractions and challenges of screen time, we’ve met families where reading co-exists very happily with screen-based entertainment. These families have found some balance and prevented wholesale takeover by screen time.

Screen time is one part of a child’s entertainment repertoire. There is no reason why it can’t co-exist with and motivate reading. The danger to reading is when the balance goes and screen time takes over, and we lose the art of being still, the habit of a quiet mind.