“Research has demonstrated that child and youth reading performance has deteriorated over the past 20 years. This negative trend is unfortunately seen in all age groups, from young children to university level.”

Over the past few decades, teachers have been sounding the alarm over the young failing to read and write as well as previous generations. The latest studies and research reports are pointing to that same dire trend. The latest international PISA study indicates, for example, that the reading performance of 15-year-olds has deteriorated in many countries, and that as many as 49 percent of teenagers agree with the statement “I only read if I have to”.

Håvard Grjotheim follows the research

“Research has also demonstrated that child and youth reading performance has deteriorated over the past 20 years. Around one in five pupils leaving school in Sweden and Norway has inadequate reading and writing skills. This negative trend is unfortunately seen in all age groups, from young children to university level,” says Håvard Grjotheim, chairman of the board of the Nordic Printing Association (NOPA), and a popular professional speaker on the role of books and their development.

One cause that has been singled out is the digitalisation of schools, which has been in progress since the 1980s, and has resulted in less reading of printed matter in schools. This past winter, Swedish Minister for Education Lotta Edholm deplored the digitalisation of schools in which online reading has demoted physical books. Her outspokenness generated a great deal of attention nationally and internationally, too.

Håvard Grjotheim speaks about the role of books and their development

“This was an incredibly important comment in its admission that educational policy had failed. The time has come to halt the situation, take a step back and reflect on what we’ve actually been achieving. Because this is an experiment on children that has been ongoing for 40 years,” asserts Grjotheim. He stresses that he is not against IT in schools, but believes that technology has become overly dominant.

"... an experiment on children that has been ongoing for 40 years ..."

Reading short texts on a screen or skimming a news site does not have the same benefit as deep-reading a printed book.

“When you read words on a phone or tablet, you risk constant interruption from pop-ups and banners, and our brains aren’t wired to cope with being interrupted," Grjotheim explains. "Equally, there is a tendency to skim online texts cursorily, which does not develop the ability to concentrate over time and comprehend overall contexts. Reading a whole book from start to finish gives the reader a coherent picture, and an awareness of different perspectives and connections. The deterioration in reading performance also means that children and young people risk underperforming in other academic subjects."

In 2022, British researchers published a study titled Reading to Learn? The Co-Development of Mathematics and Reading During Primary School, which followed 350,000 pupils from year 5 to 12. The publication found that pupils with a high standard of reading literacy made better progress in mathematics compared with children with substandard reading literacy. Conversely, the opposite was not as evident, with the study indicating that pupils with a higher standard of early-learner skills in mathematics did not automatically benefit from that in their reading skills acquisition.

Reading literacy affects many aspects in life

“Given the deterioration in reading literacy, my concern is that education is being reversed; that we are losing important skills, skills that are crucial for society at large. Reading literacy affects many aspects of life, and a deterioration in performance could have serious consequences. Right now, for example, I’m involved in a project in Brussels where we are studying the book as a foundation for economic development in Europe. That’s how important this issue is”, Grjotheim emphasizes.

Time to re-examine the role of technologies

Despite the gloomy outlook, Grjotheim sees a bright future for the printed word. In education, for example, he believes that recent outcries and reports have been a wake-up call. “More and more people are realising that we need to address this issue, and ensure that children and adolescents read more books. That doesn’t mean that schools shouldn’t be using digital teaching aids and resources, but that we need to re-examine the role of technologies going forward. I believe that new national standards are needed for IT in schools, where we settle on a hybrid solution combining both digital and analogue learning.

Not only in Scandinavia

As an industry expert, Grjotheim is also receiving more and more invitations from European countries to give talks on the role and development of printed books, like the one he presented to the Swedish Parliament for example. Because the deterioration in reading literacy standards on the back of the digitalisation of schools is not only confined to Scandinavia.

“The same trend is evident in many other European countries. But the Scandinavian countries are the most advanced in terms of digitalisation of education, so they also have the greatest need to halt and reverse the trend. Meanwhile, other countries have seen what has happened here in Sweden, the resulting outcomes and reactions, and have realised that they too need to act before it’s too late. I’m convinced that changes are going to be made concerning IT in schools in many countries in the future.”

Reading a printed book increases concentration

Grjotheim also points to sales figures confirming that physical books have a natural place in our lives. “Looking at the total volume of books sold at the European level, this has been pretty stable for the past 25 years. Naturally with some ups and downs, including the boom in sales during the pandemic years, but overall, it has been in the order of around EUR 22–23 billion per annum. So, physical books have a stronger standing than we predicted 10–15 years ago”.

There is also a societal trend in favour of physical books. As a counterculture against the brave new world of technology and digitalisation, a lot of people are keen to revert to traditional values and analogue resources. More and more people, for example, want to grow their own food, and many young people are getting into knitting and other forms of ‘slow making’ in their spare time.

Child and grown-up reading book together

“That desire to gear down is an emergent trend, which I believe is likely to become more mainstream. Reading a printed book increases concentration because there aren’t the interruptions of a screen, and more deep reading as a result. Besides which, a book is versatile – you can break off to reflect, maybe make a note in the margin and discuss the contents afterwards,” says Grjotheim, adding: “I’m now more confident about the enduring appeal of printed books than I have been for many, many years."

This text is an excerpt from the text "The future's bright for books" in Best on paper, issue 3, 2023, by Josefin Svenberg, edited by Linda Åslund.