Reading in the Digital Age: what is our role as parents and teachers?
– by Sarah Mounsey, Director of Libraries, Dulwich College (Singapore)
Some children are resistant to reading while others read even when walking downstairs at school! International statistics indicate that children are reading less than in previous decades and this has several implications. There are many things parents and teachers can do to engage children in reading for pleasure to help change this trend. The research is clear, students who read regularly achieve greater academic success. But it is not just about academic success, there are also positive impacts relating to wellbeing. This is even more important now in the digital age where so many things can distract us from finding time to slow down and read deeply. This article will explore some recent research into reading with infants right through to the reading habits of teenagers and adults in the digital age.
As teacher librarians, we are often asked questions about reading. Some of the key ones are “What age should I stop reading to my child?”, “is reading print better than reading digital?", "is listening to audiobooks beneficial? "and “now that my child has a phone, they never read books, what should I do?” These are just some of the questions I will delve into.
If you have read this far, then perhaps it could be assumed that you are a reader. However, let’s assume you are not, and you do not understand the importance of carving out reading time for your children. Let me convince you why I believe this is one of the most important things a parent and teacher can do. And if you are a reader, hopefully I will provide you with some information that you were unaware of about reading “in the age of distraction” (Carr, 2021; Wolf, 2021).
Let’s start with our youngest children first. It could be argued that a child’s most important teachers are their parents or carers. Early literacy is key to educational outcomes and adults should read, talk, sing, write and play daily with their children in the early years. Building these skills is a foundation for success in life. Reading in the early years should not be focused on moving to the next reading level, but it should be about installing a love of books and reading. Adults should explore a wide range of books that facilitates enjoyment of these texts. Using different voices, exploring rhyme, and making predictions while reading aloud, as well as saying yes when they ask for the same book for the 100th time are all important experiences for young children. Research by Merga (2019) also discovered that regular reading for pleasure in childhood is related to better behavioural adjustment in the adolescent years.
When students become independent readers, many parents stop sharing books with their children. When is the right time to stop? The answer is that there is no set time. If your child still wants you to read to them and they are reluctant to read independently, continue this habit. Even on those nights when you want nothing more than to put them to bed and enjoy some well-deserved peace! Help them to build up their reading stamina by asking them to read for five minutes independently before you read to them and then gradually increase this. Do not insist on challenging books. Let them choose what they are interested in so that reading is an enjoyable experience. Children will become lifelong readers if they are encouraged to read for pleasure, not always for purpose. When children do this frequently, they will naturally progress onto more challenging texts and want to read more. You can save the more challenging texts for the books you read together.
Many children are particularly avid readers between the ages of 8 to 12, most having acquired proficiency to read independently. In the Junior School, many students read regularly and often but some students need encouragement. Parents should insist on regular reading time, whether it be just before bedtime or before breakfast. If this does not become a habit at this age, then it is more challenging to instil later. A recent study by Jerrim et al (2020) found some interesting results. They found that there is very little evidence to prove that homework in primary school students relates to academic achievement, whereas there is evidence that reading does. Setting up regular reading time is the most important homework you can do for your children! There have also been several studies that clearly show that enjoyment of reading is positively associated with all academic achievement, not just in English (Lupo, Jang & McKenna, 2017; Sullivan & Brown, 2015).
Moving into the Senior School, students who were once voracious readers often start reading less. Most whole-school library programs will see a decrease in the number of books borrowed (and read) by students as they get older. New research (Daarmawan, 2020) on 15-year-old Australian students found that 53% of students only read for information, not pleasure and 32% think reading is a waste of time. These alarming trends have significantly increased since 2009. Teenagers are juggling more homework, extra-curricular activities and the never-ending pull of devices and social media. It is not surprising that mobile phone use in students also correlates with a decline in reading for pleasure. As adults we can observe this in our own lives. Parents need to take responsibility for having conversations with their children to manage their time on screens and to be able to switch off. Megan Daley’s book, Raising Readers (2019), is an excellent title if you want to delve into all the topics discussed so far and it is in our parent library collection.
The National Library Board of Singapore recently delivered a series of webinars under the tile of Reading in the Age of Distraction. Two of the speakers are internationally recognised for their research into reading in the digital world. Both Nicolas Carr (2020) and Maryanne Wolf (2018) have written books about this topic and we have these titles in our library if you wish to explore them further.
Nicolas Carr (2020) talks about how the internet has changed the way we read. He talks about how we are becoming ever more adept at scanning, skimming, flicking and clicking but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation and reflection. Therefore, we need to be aware that if we do not slow down, we may not be able to discern between real and fake news and reflect critically on what is read. He discusses how computers and other digital devices are interrupting machines. When we read from print, we are shielded from other distractions and we are more inclined to read deeply. As a society we should value deep reading because it is a mindful practice. It is never too late to bring this habit back into our lives, or our children’s lives. We can retrain our brains for attentiveness. Set time to put devices away in another room and find something that you really enjoy reading. Carr also talks about the fact that studies have shown that your focus is distracted by having a phone in the room with you, even if it is turned off.
Maryanne Wolf’s book (2018) explores how, as we become increasingly dependent on digital technologies, our reading brain can change. She writes that our capacity for critical thinking, empathy and reflection are affected when we read digitally. Mar et al (2009) agree and explore the relationship between reading fiction and empathy. Stories introduce the child to understanding how it feels to be another character and create a compassionate imagination. It could be argued that an understanding of others is the foundation for a future on an incredibly connected planet. Many would argue we need this now more than ever and stories help us do this.
I would not like to suggest that we should be pitching digital versus print. They are not in opposition as both bring us many benefits. Digital gives us access to boundless knowledge. My point is that we need to be aware of the cost. What goes missing when we skim is reflection and critical analysis and this is detrimental in an era where fake news is prevalent. Skimming has become the new kind of reading and if we are aware of this and we share this with our children, then it is a positive step. Enjoy the skimming and scanning, but also find time to slow down and read deeply and read for pleasure!
Anya Kamenetz’s book, The Art of Screen Time (2020) discusses how this generation of children is exposed to more technology than any other in history. Her book is also available to parents from our library. Parents continually struggle with how to navigate this territory and the constant battle with ‘screen time’. She gives a simple message, “Enjoy screens, not too much, mostly with others.” And what about reading eBooks. Yes, why not? It is a matter of preference. If you or your children enjoy them and the convenience they bring, read away and enjoy! In the last two decades there was a fear that the demand for print books for children would decrease as digital took over. The children’s book market is one area where this has not occurred, and many enjoy the benefits of using both digital and print.
But what if your child does not like to read or has reading challenges including dyslexia? Please do not give up. Students come to reading with different challenges and experiences and our libraries have resources accessible to all. As J.K. Rowling says, “If you do not like to read, you have not found the right book yet.” The role of parents, teachers and teacher librarians is to work with children to find that right book or series that hooks children into reading. If reading continues to be a challenge, stick with audio books. Or listen to the audio book whilst reading along with the text. This is a great option for everyone and very beneficial to students who would not read otherwise.
Students will not enjoy reading if they are being forced to read something they are not interested in. Over-censoring students' choices can inhibit them from becoming a lifelong reader so try not to use the words “that is too easy for you." Read books, newspapers, magazines or comics. All of it is good reading content for children. Different books have different accessibility levels and comics can aid in the development of visual literacy. Students need to read the words and the pictures in tandem to understand the text.
And what about our children who never stop reading? Encourage them to read widely and try not to over-censor their choices. Our library collection embraces diversity and equality. Books can be windows or mirrors. The reader can read about a place or character they recognise and identify with, or books can open the reader’s eyes to a whole new world and allow them to walk in someone else’s shoes (Bishop, 1990). Short (2018, p.295) in her study into children’s literature trends expressed concern regarding trends in cultural diversity and put the responsibility onto teachers to ensure they are “selective in the books shared in classrooms to avoid establishing and reinforcing stereotypes.” At Dulwich College (Singapore) we work hard to develop a library collection that will cater to our voracious readers and include titles that reflect cultural diversity, equity and inclusion. We have many books that can help us foster conversations about world issues or question our cultural or gender biases.
As the author Emilie Buchwald says, “Readers are made in the laps of their parents”. I encourage our parents to continue sharing the reading experience with their children long after they no longer fit comfortably into their lap! We believe we are better together when our parents take a deep interest in guiding and discussing book choices with their children right up until the age of 18. Reading widely and reading often is the key. What are you waiting for? Stop reading this, go and find a quiet place and find something to read that you can get lost in!
Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and using books for the classroom, 6(3). Retrieved from https://scenicregional.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/ Mirrors-Windows-and-Sliding-Glass-Doors.pdf
Carr, N. (2020) The shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, 3 edn. London, Atlantic books.
Carr, N. (2021) Reading in the age of distraction Reading Screens: The Internet and How We Read [Webinair]. National Library Board of Singapore. 23 January 2021.
Daley, M. (2019) Raising readers: How to nuture a child's love of books. Queensland, The University of Queensland Press.
Darmawan, I. G. N. (2020). The changes in attitudes of 15-year-old Australian students towards reading, mathematics and science and their impact on student performance. Australian Journal of Education, 64(3), 304–327. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004944120947873
Jerrim, J, Lopez‐Agudo, LA, Marcenaro‐Gutierrez, OD. (2020) The association between homework and primary school children's academic achievement. International evidence from PIRLS and TIMSS. Eur J Educ. 2020; 55: 248– 260. https://doi.org/10.1111/ejed.12374
Kamenetz, A. (2020) The art of screen time: Digital parenting without fear. New York: Public Affairs.
Lupo, Sarah & Jang, Bong & McKenna, Michael. (2017). The Relationship Between Reading Achievement and Attitudes Toward Print and Digital Texts in Adolescent Readers. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice. 10.1177/2381336917719254
Mar, Raymond & Oatley, Keith & Peterson, Jordan. (2009). Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes. Communications. 34. 10.1515/COMM.2009.025.
Merga, M.K. (2019). Collaborating With Teacher Librarians to Support Adolescents’ Literacy and Literature Learning Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 63( 1), 65– 72. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.958
Short, K. (2018). What’s trending in children’s literature and why it matters. Language Arts, 95(5), 287-298.
Sullivan, Alice & Brown, Matt. (2015). Reading for pleasure and progress in vocabulary and mathematics. British Educational Research Journal. 41. 10. 10.1002/berj.3180
Wolf, M. (2018) Reader, come home: The reading brain in the digital world, 4 edn, New York: Harper Collins.
Wolf, M. (2021) Reading in the age of distraction: The reading brain in the digital world [Webinair]. National Library Board of Singapore. 30 January 2021.