This World Book Day, half a million children in the UK don’t own a single book

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As reading attainment rises in schools, reading for pleasure continues its sharp decline

To mark World Book Day 2023, the charity is calling on teachers, carers and parents to ensure that reading for pleasure[1] is encouraged as much as reading attainment, in and outside of schools. While reading was the only core subject which saw attainment levels improve in 2022, (at Key Stage 2, 75% of pupils met the expected standard in reading, up from 73% in 2019. 28% of pupils reached the higher standard in reading, up from 27% in 2019[2]), the National Literacy Trust’s Annual Literacy Survey shows that the number of children who say they enjoy it is in serious decline.[3]

Reading for pleasure is not just a ‘nice to have’, it is the single biggest indicator of a child’s future success – more than their family circumstances, their parents’ educational background or their income[4]. However, reading for pleasure is at its lowest levels in 18 years; fewer than one in two (47.8%) children aged 8 to 18 said they enjoyed reading in 2022, the lowest level since 2005[5]. This is even lower for children growing up in poverty; fewer children and young people who receive Free School Meals (FSMs) said they enjoyed reading compared with their peers who do not receive FSMs (43.8% vs. 48.8%). The percentage-point-gap between these groups has more than doubled from 2.1pp to 5pp, between 2020 and 2022[6].

The cost of living is putting the biggest squeeze on family budgets in years and creating further barriers to reading for pleasure, with almost two thirds (64%) of parents saying they currently have less money to spend on books for their children than before[7].  500,000 (1 in 15; 6.5%) children in the UK aged 8 – 18 say they don’t own a single book[8], which rises to one in 10 (9.7%)for those eligible for Free School Meals. Over one in five (22.4%) pupils receiving free school meals said that the book they ‘bought’ with their World Book Day book token was the first book of their own[9].

This year, the charity World Book Day has focused on a large number of initiatives and provided guidance to ensure anyone can take part and experience the joy and inspiration of reading, regardless of household income.  This includes ideas for no or low-cost costumes or costume swaps, book swaps or other free activities in school or community groups. There is also advice on how to fundraise more inclusively, focusing more on reading over other aspects such as dressing up.

Fewer boys than girls said they enjoyed reading (45.6% vs. 54.9%) and fewer than 3 in 10 (28.0%) children and young people aged 8 to 18 said that they read daily, the second-lowest level since the National Literacy Trust survey began[10]. Boys who receive Free School Meals had the lowest levels of reading enjoyment, with just 2 in 5 (39.8%) enjoying reading; a drop of 6.5 per cent since 2020[11].

Children and young people who take part in World Book Day activities enjoy reading more compared with their peers who don’t take part – 63.8% vs 48.4%while 54.7% read more books as a result of World Book Day[13]. Parents surveyed by the charity said that 50% of children find reading more fun because of World Book Day, 48% make more time to read and 49% feel they have more choice in what they read because of it. Children who are the most engaged with literacy are also three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than those who are the least engaged (39.4% vs 11.8%[15].) In its 25th year in 2022, World Book Day distributed 50 million £1 book tokens through schools, nurseries, magazines and partnerships, to enable children to get a book of their own, for free[16].

Cassie Chadderton, CEO of World Book Day comments: “World Book Day exists to encourage more children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to benefit from a life-long habit of reading for pleasure. Many families are facing financial challenges so we want all children, families, schools and communities to feel welcome to celebrate the joy of reading in ways that work for them.  

There are lots of affordable, inclusive and of course, enjoyable ways to create joy and excitement around reading. Dressing up is a great way to encourage children to read, and we’ve shared ideas for other fun activities and resources to help schools, nurseries and families to work together to create a World Book Day where everyone feels included. The joy of reading cannot be underestimated in terms of improved wellbeing and the improved life chances it can lead to.”

Lenny Henry, 2023 World Book Day £1 book author adds: “World Book Day is always important, but this year kids need joy more than ever at a time when their lives can be hard. Reading is an amazing escape route as well as an essential life skill, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that I’m one of the £1 book authors this year, helping to bring the joy of reading to children all over the country.”

Jonathan Douglas CBE, Chief Executive of the National Literacy Trust comments: “World Book Day is an important moment to inspire and delight children with the wonder of books and a powerful platform to reinforce the importance of building literacy skills for life – this is even more essential during times of economic hardship. Economic studies have shown that reading for pleasure can result in children getting better GCSEs, in turn boosting their lifetime earnings and raising the UK’s GDP. In the future, my hope is that more children will grow up to be adults who read and that reading and books are part of their world.”

[1] World Book Day Reading for Pleasure definition: feeling sense of satisfaction or pleasure by engaging with chosen reading material in their free time.
[2] Department for Education Key Stage 2 statistics, 2022
[3] National Literacy Trust, Annual Literacy Survey, 2022
[5] National Literacy Trust, Annual Literacy Survey, 2022
[6] National Literacy Trust, Annual Literacy Survey, 2022
[8] National Literacy Trust, Book Ownership in 2022, 2022
[9] Unpublished data from the National Literacy Trust, 2022
[10] National Literacy Trust, Annual Literacy Survey, 2022
[11] National Literacy Trust, Annual Literacy Survey, 2022
[12] Unpublished data from the National Literacy Trust, 2022
[13] National Literacy Trust 2021, Exploring the Impact of World Book Day, 2021
[14] World Book Day and IPSOS research, 2022
[15] National Literacy Trust, Mental Wellbeing, Reading and Writing 2018
[16] WBD Impact Report 2022