Judgement and expectations are putting children off reading

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New research shows that 1 in 5 kids feel judged for what they read, while a quarter are made to read things they don’t want to

The sad truth is that fewer children than ever are choosing to read. So, because reading for pleasure improves life chances and World Book Day is all about children, this year we have heard from them – in their own voices. World Book Day conducted research with funding from The Mercers’ Company, and partnered with Beano Brain, to speak directly to children aged 7-14 about their feelings around reading for pleasure.

The feedback is loud and clear; many of the 1,000 children we spoke to told us they feel judged and embarrassed about reading – and this quickly puts them off. If children feel shamed at an early age about their reading ability, or about their reading choices, they are less likely to read for pleasure, losing out on the benefits it brings to their well-being and educational success. Reading for pleasure is the single most important indicator of a child’s future success (footnote).

Children are sending a clear message that adults need to understand the barriers they face and let go of expectations and judgements around reading, giving them choice – and a chance – to grow up as enthusiastic readers.

“Adults think proper reading is… non-fiction, thick books, books with only words.”

World Book Day focus groups respondent, 2023

“When you get older, the excitement of it all gets taken away from you, I don’t think I’d be able to read through a whole book now like I used to.”

Boy, 14, Non-Reader, Beano Brain research 2023

Children feel they have no voice or choice

Lack of choice is the primary issue for children when it comes to reading for pleasure. They feel they are not being given the freedom to choose the books they want to read, with the research revealing that over a third of children say they cannot choose what they want to read at home (34%) or at school (35%).

One in four children say they’re encouraged to read things they simply don’t want to, while one fifth (21%) say they can’t find anything they want to read at home, which increases to a quarter at school (25%).

Many children feel confused or overwhelmed when it comes to choosing a book (23%), creating further barriers to enjoyment. Many children say they would prefer their parents to stop reading to them, because they think their parents wouldn’t approve of the book they want to read.

“I would rather read by myself  – my parents don’t enjoy the books I want to read.”

World Book Day focus groups respondent, 2023

“We only have set times that we are allowed to read in school. I like reading when I’m on my own, not when I’m forced to read because it puts me off.”

Girl, 11, Non-Reader, Beano Brain research 2023

The experience of feeling judged is also impacting children right across the age group. Over one child in every 10 say they feel judged by their reading ability at school (15%) and at home (16%), while twice as many – one in five – feel judged by others on their reading choices, both at school (20%) and at home (18%).

”I didn’t tell my teacher that I didn’t like that book in case she thought it was a bit rude and told me off.”

Boy, 10, Light Reader, Beano Brain Research, 2023

“There’s really no point in reading; I was really bad in primary school, I couldn’t do anything the teacher said.”

Boy, 13, Non-Reader, Beano Brain research 2023

Adults have an essential role to play

The positive role that grown-ups can play in a child’s reading journey was also clearly described by the children we spoke to.

Two in five children think reading is best when they feel like they’re good at it (40%) while 30% say it’s best when they feel confident and encouraged. Over a quarter of kids say they believe they would enjoy reading more if it was made more fun (30%) and there was less nagging from grown-ups (28%) to do it.

Over a quarter (28%) said reading is best when they can talk about reading and books with friends and family, while 18% said being read to regularly at home would help them enjoy reading more, alongside seeing parents read themselves for fun (17%).

However, only a quarter (25%) say their parents relax by reading in the home compared to scrolling on their phone (56%), watching TV (52%) or watching their phone or tablet (40%).

“Adults usually tell you to read but then they don’t read and go on their phones. My teachers and my dad do that!”

Girl, 11, Non-Reader (Beano Brain research, 2023)

Children know what they want and the benefits when it works

When World Book Day asked children when reading is best, autonomy and control were by far the most important factors:

  • when they can choose what to read – 47%
  • when they can choose when to read (42%)
  • when they can choose where to read (37%)

A quarter of children also believe they would enjoy reading more if they had more freedom to read in other ways, such as graphic novels/ audiobooks (25%)

Children also appreciate the opportunities reading can offer them; one in four (24%) believe that reading lets them show who they are as a person and what they like doing, over a third feel that reading for fun makes them feel calmer and say they enjoy reading in their spare time, while 30% feel that reading allows them to go to different worlds and learn about different places and things.

“I like to get into my pyjamas and curl up on the sofa; it doesn’t have to be silent but it has to be calm”

Girl, 11, Reader, Beano Brain research 2023

Alice Read, teacher at Buckingham Primary School, Hampton comments: “I have had a child in the classroom and they had the book that they thought they wanted me to see they were reading, and underneath that, the book they wanted to read. They’re hiding them away. It’s important to see that it’s a valuable book, it might be one that’s giving them comfort, their easy read, or has characters they relate to. It’s important as practitioners in the classroom that we’re not voicing our opinion about whether it’s a book you ‘should’ be reading.”

Cassie Chadderton, CEO World Book Day comments: “Children are telling us themselves why they don’t enjoy reading; they’re judged on their reading ability and choices, and it’s putting them off. As grown-ups we can help make reading more fun for children by encouraging them choose what to read, and how they want to read it. When we do, many more children will have the chance to enjoy reading, and grow up with the life changing benefits this brings.”