“People are far less likely to concentrate on a digital screen."

Naomi Baron – professor emerita of linguistics at American University in Washington, D.C. and author of How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen and Audio – points out the impact of the medium, when it comes to reading. Since children and adults use screens for social purposes, we tend to absorb information as it was designed – to read more quickly and to expend less effort.

“People are far less likely to concentrate on a digital screen,” she says, referring to new data showing that 65% of 11–15-year-olds surveyed at the International School of Amsterdam find it easy to concentrate when reading in print, while half that number – only 32% – do so when reading on the computer.

The study also found that 76% of these students reported never or seldom multitasking when reading print, while only 31% said they never or seldom multitask when reading on digital screens. In fact, studies show that students who think they read better – or more efficiently – on screen still tend to do better in tests if they have read the same passage on the printed page.

Negative relationship

Statistics from PIRLS (the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) published in 2020, show there is a direct, negative relationship between how often teachers get their students to use computers or tablets for reading activities and how much the students like reading.

“The kind of reading that you do matters for objective academic comprehension tests, for learning in general, but also for enjoyment,” says Baron.

Scandinavia stands out

Although it has one of the highest literacy rates among children in the world, Sweden stands out in the statistics among OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. According to the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) score on reading for enjoyment in 2018, Sweden experienced the largest drop, with only Chile scoring lower.

"... they transform into must-readers, looking for the right answers and participating in endless tests that kill the joy of reading."

In 2009, 39.4% of Swedish 15-year-olds stated that they only read if they had to. In 2018, that figure had grown to 56.9%. This means that well over half the students only read if they were forced to. This negative development is the main reason why Sweden dropped in PISA’s reading for enjoyment ranking and now has the sixth worst index in the OECD. Only the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland are worse.

“Swedish children break the reading code early on, but their reading for pleasure is low,” says Eva-Lis Sirén, chairman of the Swedish Teacher’s Foundation and one of the authors behind a report on children’s reading habits in Sweden.

“I’m sorry to say that after a good start, they transform into must-readers, looking for the right answers and participating in endless tests that kill the joy of reading. Just because you can answer questions in a test does not mean you understand subtle messages or are critical enough – which is an important tool in a democracy today. Those that don’t train at reading will have a harder time,” Sirén says.

American statistics are heartbreaking

Naomi Baron sees a similar development. In the study she and her colleagues carried out at the International School of Amsterdam, one third of the students surveyed said they only read when they have to.

“Many students in middle school, high school and universities don’t read at all for pleasure,” says Baron. “Maybe it is because they don’t want to, or because they never liked reading, maybe because they are busier now, or because they spend so much time with their screens. The American statistics on how much time middle and high school students spend on screens are heart-breaking.”

She refers to a study by Common Sense Media that compared the small amount of time tweens and teens spend reading for pleasure with the vast amount they spend doing other things digitally. “It’s highly imbalanced,” she says.

The fiction effect

So, what's the key to bringing the joy of reading to children? Gemma Moss, professor of literacy and director of the International Literacy Centre at the UCL Institute of Education in London, was recently part of a major European study on how reading influences academic performance. According to her, teachers are in a good position to introduce more varied reading habits.

I’ve seen teachers read extracts of books to capture students’ interest,” she says. “Anyone can then borrow it. Students come back and tell their friends, ‘Wow, read this one.’ Someone else may say, ‘Don’t bother with this one, it was boring.’ They give opportunities for themselves to discover books. You can’t be told by teachers to read – students have to find the motivation themselves. Schools need to find a collaborative interest in something.”

Girl reading a book with dog

Moss says that girls are more likely to share books with each other, and that teachers need to address boys with low esteem and encourage them to read.

One of the solutions, Moss says, is what she and fellow researcher John Jerrim found in their 2019 study based on PISA data on reading – the “fiction effect.” It shows a consistent relationship between those with the highest grades and frequent reading of narrative fiction. The same did not apply to reading magazines, comic books, non-fiction books or newspapers.

“We have seen that boys who read lots of fiction have a higher attainment,” says Moss. “The length of the book creates more committed reading over time. Words keep coming up in different contexts meaning different things, which requires a different sense of written vocabulary – it’s more immersive, and you read it for longer.”