Are e-readers and electronic gadgets affecting children’s reading habits?

PUBLISHED: 09:00 24 September 2014

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Does it matter? Tinx Newton investigates

Children who read for pleasure are likely to do significantly better at school than their peers, according to recent research from the Institute of Education. But as e-readers and electronic gadgets infiltrate the home, is it more difficult than ever to get children to read for pleasure?

According to UNESCO, the biggest single indicator of whether a child is going to thrive at school and at work is whether or not that child reads for pleasure. Reading fiction stimulates children’s imaginations and enables them to identify with lives and situations beyond their own experience. It opens up incredible ‘other worlds’ and can be a welcome escape from the demanding lives they lead today. Without a doubt, reading for pleasure is a good thing, but do children actually enjoy it as a choice of leisure?

Perhaps it depends how they read. In the past children may have regarded reading for fun as a bit ‘nerdy’, it is now often deemed to be positively cool if the child is reading on a tablet or electronic device. The number of young people reading from a screen every day has now overtaken those who read printed material with 26% using a touch screen at home to read stories.

The National Literacy Trust (NLT) confirms the popularity of tablets. They found pre-school children were more likely to read every day if they had access to smart-phones and tablets, as well as paper books.

So how do schools cope with the influx of electronic devices? Do they welcome them as an asset to reading or put measures in place to limit their use in favour of reading “real books”. The new technology has only been around in affordable form for a relatively short time and it may still be too early to assess if it is good or bad for the future of reading. However, research carried out so far raises some interesting points and the importance of reading, in whatever form, is high on the agenda at many schools.

At Dulwich Prep in Cranbrook, Kent, reading is encouraged as a group and individual activity. Upper school librarian, Fiona Booth says: “The Dulwich ethos is to assume that reading is both essential and enjoyable. We have a daily ‘reading period’ for 20 minutes after lunch and we regularly incorporate library activities and reading for enjoyment into English lessons. The library is a large, light and peaceful space which is always open to the children and we host visits from authors and run book fairs, reading games and various competitions so that it is part of the lively hub at the heart of the school. Most importantly, we have a full-time librarian to guide and advise every child.

“As to whether technological developments have influenced children reading fiction for pleasure, the most important influence is not so much about the format in which children choose to read and whether they will abandon traditional books; it is whether they choose to read for pleasure at all when technology is offering them a vast playground of alternative activities. Reading is a habit and the practice of reading will develop concentration and the ability to read effectively. It’s a positive cycle. There have always been children who love reading and those children will continue to read in any format and to build the habit.”

Following an informal survey among pupils at Dulwich Prep, it was found that the most enthusiastic readers on screen turn out to be the same children as those who read enthusiastically from books. Kindles and other devices are used for convenience, for example when travelling, but most children said that they preferred traditional books.

Some reasons given were the ability to ‘flick backwards and forwards’ in a book to remind themselves who a character is, and some said that everything read on screen tends to take on a rather grey, amorphous feel; the character of an individual volume is lost. It seems that although children adore their iPads, they also really value their personal book collections – and they hate the idea of homes and libraries without books.

Happily there is little chance of schools doing away with libraries altogether. They are still viewed by potential parents as a valuable resource for a school and parents at open days quiz the school librarian on what they offer.

Daniel Gabriele, Head of Sixth Form and English teacher at Brighton College, says: “We encourage reading through our own literary societies and devoted library sessions with pupils in 4th form. All pupils are inducted into the library. Throughout the lower and middle schools, English teachers not only provide pupils with reading lists, published on the portal, but spend at least a lesson per half term guiding pupils on what they might pursue further, according to his or her own inclinations. Plans are afoot to launch an online book club aimed at the whole community – pupils, parents and teachers.”

At the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, Head Librarian Tamsin Farthing believes keen readers are reading as much as ever.

“It can’t be denied that there are many non-text distractions and demands on their time and reading may not be first on their list of leisure activities. But I see boys here who borrow a book every morning in exchange for the one they took home the day before, having read it from cover to cover overnight.

“Although there are e-book readers in evidence, the impression I get is that most boys prefer the feel of a ‘real book’, particularly for their leisure reading. There was little interest in a recent e-book lending trial which I carried out at school. There is evidence that digital texts are more attractive to students who struggle with reading, because of the ability to adapt text to make it more accessible.”

Victoria Dilly, Librarian at Downsend School in Leatherhead, Surrey, recognises that different formats have their worth. “Whilst I do not believe e-readers will ever ‘replace’ books, it is important to support all types of reading, via whatever format,” she says.

“E-readers can also have a positive impact for those who struggle with reading, particularly those who suffer from dyslexia – for example, font size can be altered, background colours changed. I think those who have already been ‘bitten’ by the reading bug will keep reading, but perhaps with the added extra of having books at their fingertips.

“Whether they’re reading physical books or from a Kindle, once children are reading, it is essential for schools to put in place strategies that support this and enable them to have as a wide a reading choice as possible, with the appropriate guidance. Designated library lessons can help them to develop their independent reading skills, with support from the librarian and the teacher.”

It is no longer enough to provide shelves of interesting books and recommended authors. Due to the increase in technological distractions, schools have to think outside the box to encourage reading as a chosen leisure pursuit for pupils, whatever the format.

At Epsom College in Surrey, the library staff see their role in encouraging reading for pleasure across the college community as a top priority. They work to ensure even the most choosy of students can find something they will enjoy in the library. They regularly run reading promotions, such as the Valentine’s special Blind Date with a Book, and on a rather inclement day in June the lawn outside the library was turned into a Garden Reading Room, inspired by the Bryant Park Garden Reading Room beside the New York Public Library.

The college also welcomes visits from successful authors. It accepts that the role of electronic reading material cannot be ignored and in a recent survey of M4 pupils entering the school, over 50% responded that they read e-books, which is approximately double the use indicated in previous years.

This reflects the national picture. In 2012 digital fiction book sales were up 149%. According to a survey of 2,000 British children and parents conducted by Nielsen Book in June 2013, 50% of family households now own at least one tablet, up from 24% a year previously.

Chartered librarian Sally Perry, who runs Epsom College library, says: “It’s fair to say that most of the librarians I meet feel that reading is what really matters; the format, whether print or digital, doesn’t. Some formats suit certain readers, certain subjects and certain situations better than others. The role of the library is to help readers find what they need and use the most appropriate resource in the most efficient way.”

The Royal Grammar School recognises that reading enhances the boys’ considerable achievements and enriches their understanding of the world. Tamsin Farthing finds topics that will engage the RGS boys’ attention.

“Our reading challenge this summer was based on the World Cup and the aim was to read a book connected with each of the 32 playing nations before we returned in September,” she says.

“Last summer we ran Extreme Reading, a competition to be photographed reading in an unusual location (won by a boy who laminated copies of pages in order to read them underwater). I use the intranet and the school’s communication screens to promote the Book of the Week and try to link books and reading to as many school events as I can. Last year, when several of the school staff grew moustaches for Movember, I ran a “Mo of the Day” in place of Book of the Week, highlighting moustachioed characters and authors.”

Alan Bird, Deputy Headmaster (Innovation) at Brighton College also recognises the benefits of the new technology. “What new technologies do very effectively is make resources and reading material more accessible, more cheaply and more easily,” he says.

“In subjects such as politics and economics, where a true appreciation of the subject relies upon the link between classroom theory and daily developments, access to newspapers, magazines and blogs, on-line, can be invaluable in helping pupils to keep up-to-date.

“Technology allows teachers to present ‘reading’ as something that pupils might be doing anyway, rather than as a separate activity involving a seemingly inaccessible book; this thereby makes it more likely that the pupils will engage. Technology is not displacing other forms of reading; it is making the process of wider reading more likely.”

It appears that schools and their libraries need to embrace new technology and run it alongside traditional reading methods. According to research done by the National Literacy Trust, to use both methods is good but it could be potentially detrimental to children’s reading ability if they use tablet alone.

While the Trust acknowledges the positive impact technology has had on reading numbers, they urge a “healthier balance” using both books and technological devices.

The study found those who read only electronic books daily are significantly less likely to be strong readers than those who read daily in print, and are much less likely to enjoy reading. The research, which surveyed 34,910 young people aged eight to 16, also revealed that fewer students who read from devices reported having a favourite book.

Also that more children, particularly boys, now prefer reading from a screen than from a magazine, newspaper or book.

Jonathan Douglas, National Literacy Trust’s director, said: “We know that technology is playing a central role in young people’s literacy development and reading choice. In a National Literacy Trust 2013 survey, more children said they preferred to read on electronic devices than in print. While we welcome the positive impact which technology has on bringing further reading opportunities to young people, it’s crucial that reading in print is not cast aside.”

According to the Trust, one in six people in the UK struggle with literacy. With ongoing advances in digital communications, literacy skills are key and without them, the potential for exclusion from society is greater than ever.

A final word from Mr Douglas, who says: “Our research highlighted that children who only read on-screen and not in print at all are significantly less likely to enjoy reading and less likely to be strong readers. It’s important that teachers and parents support children to adopt a healthy reading balance using books and technological devices, but above all we need to encourage children to become avid readers, whatever format they choose.

“Through our work at the Trust, we empower children to find reading material that is relevant to them, regardless of whether it’s a comic, novel or an online blog about football.”

All reading is good, whatever the format. The important thing is for parents, teachers and the children themselves to interact with each other, sharing technological know-how and chatting about what they have on the go.

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What students think about reading

“I use electronic gadgets for reading on a frequent basis however the majority of this is to stay informed with the news. When it comes to reading literature I still prefer to read books as I feel that it enhances the experience much more than reading a book on a bright white screen.” - Charlotte Varela, Upper 6th (Year 13) Brighton College

“I did try electronic books for a while but I still much prefer to read literature in physical books. I find electronic adaptations lose a little of the personality that comes with a physical book, and it’s easier to bookmark pages in books than on an iPad.” - Finn Maunder, Upper 6th (Year 13) Brighton College

“The big draw of using a gadget over the traditional book is the density of information, being able to hold 100 plus books in such a small device and having them all kept in an orderly manner makes life so much easier than having to deal with two shelves of books where the book I’m searching for may be (assuming I’ve not misplaced it). Using gadgets does mean you miss out on some of the satisfaction had by owning a full series that can be neatly displayed, but in reality, where usability must trump looks, reading from a gadget is the more convenient way to go.” - Sam White, Upper Sixth (Year 13) Brighton College

“I prefer the Kindle because it is easy to take a lot of books on holiday. I might read 10 books in one holiday.” - Oliver, year 8, Royal Grammar School, Guildford

“I might download something on to my Kindle if I want it immediately, but I also like choosing books in bookshops.” - Rufus Cox 8R, Dulwich Prep School, Cranbrook

“I prefer turning pages to pressing buttons and only use my Kindle when going on holiday to avoid a heavy suitcase. I’d be very upset to think of the school library, or my home, without actual books.” - Poppy Gedney 5T, Dulwich Prep School, Cranbrook

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