Reading for pleasure is a part of becoming socially mobile

by Carol Taylor

Booktrust has released two fascinating pieces of research today, linked to reading for pleasure. The first, carried out by DJS Research, is a national survey of reading habits amongst adults. It looks at who reads, how they read, what they read and why some people don’t read.

The headlines are that almost one-in-five adults (18%) say they ‘never read books’ – that means over four-in-five (80%) do. Almost four-in-five (76%) say that reading improves their life, and helps them feel good.

The research also found that in general, women are more frequent readers than men, the over 60s read the most and men on the whole prefer technology (DVDs, TV, Internet).

So much, so far is probably pretty obvious. What is interesting are the subtleties. Comparisons of different socio-economic groups show that ABs read more and own more books than DEs. The differences between these groups continues in a way one might expect – except for the statement ‘I read to learn new things’, which over four-in-five (85%) agree with – and there’s barely a difference between the two groups. Clearly books are seen as a source of knowledge, and probably power, for all adults.

When looking at barriers to reading, fewer than one-in-five (17%) say reading is hard work. It’s probable that a high proportion of those who say they don’t have time, or they get bored, are also struggling with reading. The second piece of research is from Sheffield University, a comprehensive and detailed look at attitudes to reading and writing and their links with mobility. There is so much to learn from this piece of research and the conference I attended could only scratch the surface of the analysis and findings. This whole area needs further research.

Whilst a direct link cannot be found between positive attitudes to reading and social mobility there are, of course, strong indicators of the importance of literacy. Alan Johnson MP, former Education Secretary, spoke movingly about his childhood and how books saved him. His mum was determined that he would succeed and saw reading as the key. The research highlights what we know – that social class is still one of the greatest predictors of academic achievement. It also underlines what NIACE made clear in its Inquiry into Family Learning – that the first three years of a child’s life are of overwhelming importance, so attitudes and practices within the home are key.

Parents play the most important role in giving kids the best start in life. It’s not solely about teachers (although they are of course vital), it is families who enable children to learn, who start the whole reading process and who instill a love of books. By 4 years old it’s already too late.

There is much of interest in Sheffield’s research – about gender difference and about the impact of ‘gendered reading’ on social mobility; about those who may not have English as their first language, where maybe their language is perceived as of a lower status; and about the impact of new technologies.

At NIACE, we know that reading for pleasure is a key part of developing not only literacy skills, but confidence, family attitudes, employability skills and a feeling of belonging. We know this from our Adult Learners’ Week award winners, from learners we work with through national groups and networks, through testimony to our Inquiries over the years and through our recently published Reading for Pleasure and Reading Circles for Adult Emergent Readers.

Many people quote the importance of Quick Reads, for example, in enabling them to feel all of a sudden that they are like everyone else. Others talk of the importance of the book-gifting schemes, such as Bookstart, in giving children something to own and introducing them to their first library. And family learning learners describe how they suddenly realise the importance of reading to their child or grandchild.

We know that reading for pleasure is a part of becoming socially mobile. Both these pieces of research will help policy makers and practitioners to think through how and why people read, and the importance of moving from ‘learning to read’ to being ‘a reader’.

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