Book lists: how my heart sank when a child, or more often a parent, approached the library desk with that sheet of paper in their hand. Inevitably it was a list of reading demanded by the teacher or the school. The books listed would not be bad; indeed they would almost certainly include many that I, as a librarian and committed reader, would want young people to discover. However these lists were rarely targeted at the individual, nor were they presented as exciting possibilities. There was nothing to attract the child or guide the parent some of whom may have had painful memories of similar lists.
A recent survey undertaken on behalf of Booktrust (www.booktrust.org.uk) into the reading habits of adults has just been published. In many ways its findings emphasise what is already known – that reading is linked to well being and success, that attitudes to reading and books can often be defined by socio-economic status and gender, that children who have parents who read themselves and introduced books at an early age are more likely to read as adults. These conclusions are welcome ammunition for all those fighting the good fight. However, though the survey shows that there is still a very positive attitude to reading and the ownership of books among a healthy majority, it is disturbing to be faced with a significant minority who never read or pick up a book. Many are sure computers and TVs will completely replace the book within the next 20 years. Books are for the older generation, not the younger.
So what about e-books? This a medium suited to the modern electronic age. The survey included them, but as yet they do appear to have made a real impact across the board in terms of ownership or the conclusions of the survey . There may be factors involved here, other than attitudes to reading. It will be interesting to see whether the statistics change in the years to come. Of course, the survey was aimed at adults, it was not looking at the reading habits of children. However, many of those surveyed will represent the parents of the future – and it was here that negative attitudes to books and reading were particularly marked. Yet, it is clear – and the survey strengthens this belief – the role of the parent in developing a positive attitude to reading is very important. Could a connection with reading through an electronic or digital medium be the key?
At present, the e-book even for children, is assumed to be aimed at older readers. That really it is not particularly appropriate for younger readers. However, pragmatic experience suggests that young parents, whatever their personal reading histories, might be more receptive to the idea of sharing a reading experience with their young children. Surely the book is the medium. No one would deny the particular experience to be had when sharing that special picture book or story. However, the latest piece of research published by The National Literacy Trust (www.literacytrust.org.uk), suggest that there is a real role for the electronic device in helping parents read with three to five year olds. It was particularly interesting to find that this would be, not through the conventional e-book reader, rather through touch screen tablets and through smart phones. The use of such technology was found to be especially prevalent among lower income families; traditionally the people expressing little interest in reading. However, before all of us book addicts despair, the research also concludes that it is the combination of technology and books that is really beneficial. As Jonathan Douglas, Director of the NLT comments ‘When parents read with their children, whatever the medium, they increase their child’s enjoyment of reading which brings life-long benefits. Both practitioners and parents have a vital role to play in supporting children to read from an early age whether they use books or a touch screen.’
Whether using books or increasingly looking to read through the medium of new technologies, both of these reports highlight the importance of personal connection – the example and encouragement of an adult. It still begs the question ‘What to read’. We seem to be back with the book list. However, the “book list” does not need to be a deadening tool. A list in the hands of an enthusiastic practitioner can be the key to opening doors.
Booktrust Reading Habits Survey 2013 (www.booktrust.org.uk/usr/)
Practitioner perspectives: Children’s use of technology in the early years (Susie Formby. www.literacytrust.org.uk/research/)
Parents’ perspectives: Children’s use of technology in the early years (Susie Formby, www.litercaytrust.org.uk/research/)