Should our Children Read More and Look at Screens Less?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 30 May 2023
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Reading performance of children; Screen time

BBC Northern Ireland Education Correspondent Robbie Meredith has recently highlighted a report into children’s reading habits by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) which was administered by the NFER in 2021 for the Department of Education. This international study used data from 400,000 children in almost 60 countries and investigated children's reading skills close to the end of their primary school time.

The headline news was, that the reading performance of primary school children in Northern Ireland has been ranked fifth in the world in this major international assessment. Only pupils in Singapore, Ireland, Hong Kong and Russia achieved higher scores than children here.

Northern Ireland children ranked fifth in the world for reading - BBC News

A recent article in The Irish Times agrees with these findings. Carl O Brien, their Education Editor, writing in 2021 quotes another report, by Renaissance Learning, an online testing programme used in many schools. They track the reading habits of more than one million pupils in the UK and Ireland annually. Their findings were that;

“Irish children’s reading skills improved during the Covid-19 lockdown with many picking up longer books of greater difficulty” and that they, “were reading a wider variety of books which, in some cases, were 2½ years above their chronological age.” Renaissance director, John Moore, said reading had helped many children's sense of wellbeing while isolated from the wider world.

These findings put the Republic of Ireland significantly higher than any of the other jurisdictions surveyed, including Northern Ireland. The report goes on to say that ;
“while there is an emphasis on reading “hard” books in the early years of primary in the Republic, the levels of difficulty at this stage in the North are much lower, but that by the time secondary education comes around, many of these differences have been levelled out and children are reading material at a similar level of difficulty”.

Irish children’s reading skills improved during lockdown – report – The Irish Times

The good news is that pupils in both jurisdictions in Ireland measure up well internationally in terms of reading skills.

One interesting difference in the two reports is the finding on the effect of the pandemic on the children’s reading. In contrast to the reported improvement in reading books during Covid19 in the Republic of Ireland, parents in Northern Ireland said that their child's learning had been "adversely affected" by the pandemic. The majority of Northern Ireland school principals also told the report's researchers that the teaching of reading had been affected by a shortage of resources in their schools. So, we are unsurprisingly once again seeing the effect of budget cuts in education here, disadvantaging pupils compared to their peers elsewhere.

In his piece, Robbie Meredith points out that the Department of Education (DE) in Northern Ireland has cut funding to early years reading support  in spite of evidence from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) that countries who performed well in the study had high numbers of parents who read to their children at home.

The NFER’s Rachel Classick stresses that children who achieved the best reading and comprehension scores in their study had parents who liked to read to them and had access to books at home.

She highlighted the important finding from the survey that a majority of parents in Northern Ireland reported that they were reading with their children before they had started school and she believes that that this is a crucial factor in later success.

A worrying finding in the Renaissance Learning report however is that;

“… while average book difficulty rose as pupils became older, this was not in proportion to the rate at which the pupils should have been improving in reading” ….secondary school pupils were still reading books at almost the same level of difficulty as upper primary school pupils.

The Renaissance Learning study was analysed by Professor Keith Topping of Dundee University who found that;

 “Over this long period, we have seen a repeated decline in reading comprehension from primary to secondary pupils. To help tackle this, secondary pupils need to be encouraged to read books of increased difficulty, more appropriate to their age.”

The study found that this trend is evident in all regions, including the Republic of Ireland. In The Renaissance Learning survey, JK Rowling dominated the charts of most popular books at primary level as pupils continued go for the Harry Potter series. Other popular authors at primary included David Walliams, Julia Donaldson and the classic Roald Dahl stories.

The 2023 “What Kids Are Reading” report, which surveyed children in the UK and Ireland, found that  social media trends such as the BookTok community on TikTok helped children engage with authors.  In secondary school, Jeff Kinney was most popular, followed by David Walliams and then JK Rowling.

Children read almost 25% more books last year, UK and Ireland study finds | Children and teenagers | The Guardian

Jeff Kinney developed the character of a middle-school weakling named Greg Heffley, who writes illustrated stories about his personal life. In May 2004, he released an online version of the story, titled Diary of a Wimpy Kid. In February 2006, he signed a multi-book deal to turn Diary of a Wimpy Kid into a print series and the book became an instant hit, with the online version receiving about 20 million views. Kinney advocates that kids should spend time reading as an alternative to screen time.

We are all naturally worried about the amount of “screen time” which school children of all ages now indulge in. Being realistic that the genie is never going back into the bottle and we need to use all the device alternatives which are popular with them to get children interested in books like Jeff Kinney’s Diary of A Wimpy kid which began life online. This seems like a model to follow for the future as our lives become ever more digital.

This article is correct at 30/05/2023

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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