If there was one good thing to come out of lockdowns, it was improved book sales and rates of reading, especially among children. A survey of 70,000 children and young people by the National Literacy Trust, however, has found this gain is now gone: figures are now equal to just before the pandemic, when the trust recorded the lowest levels of reading enjoyment (just under 50%) since it first asked the question 17 years ago. A concurrent study of 8,000 five- to eight-year-olds found that nearly one in five did not have a book at home.
These questions are not about basic literacy but about the habit of reading: the children surveyed spoke of books giving them subjects to talk about; of entertainment and information; of reading helping them to understand people unlike themselves; of finding in books a place of escape and a mitigation of loneliness; of aid in coping with difficulty. “It helps me in learning about what I am feeling. That is because I have a hard time expressing my emotions and would rather not bother anyone,” as one child put it.
Children who read at home are six times more likely to be able to read above expected levels, while one study of 160,000 adults from 31 countries found children whose homes held at least 80 books, but whose schooling ended at 13 or 14, were “as literate, numerate and technologically apt in adulthood as university graduates who grew up with only a few books”. Another found these children also went on to earn more.
It is not that most parents and carers don’t understand this. A reason often cited for the lack of books at home is the cost of living. Almost a fifth of Britain’s public libraries have closed in 10 years, while one in eight primary schools in England, rising to one in four in disadvantaged communities, do not have a library or designated reading space. Furthermore, the Department for Education, with its insistence on systematic synthetic phonics, would do well to heed the number of children who told the National Literacy Trust that teaching in primary schools had put them off reading. Compared with other problems this country faces, providing varied reading material is relatively straightforward to fix. We owe it to children to do so.