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One way to think about this is to consider what education actually gets you. Maybe kids who go to the theatre, or play a musical instrument, are more likely to look impressive when they’re applying to university. When you look at people with degrees, though, you might not be interested in what they did beforehand: once you get to the level playing field of having a degree, what got you there wasn’t important. Kids who read for pleasure, though, might have got something that wasn’t only superficially attractive. Alternatively, maybe reading for pleasure is superficially attractive in the longer term: what you get from reading that impresses people doesn’t only impress university admissions officers.


What is ‘reading for pleasure’?


That’s the content of the original research paper, but it obviously raises a number of questions. Firstly, what does ‘reading for pleasure’ mean, and how is it different from ‘reading’? I’m talking about books, not magazines or newspapers or comics, but not limiting ‘books’ to fiction. I’m also excluding any reading that might be required by school, even if the kids happen to enjoy the books on the syllabus. This is particularly important for boys, as a number of boys might be good at reading, and even enjoy it, but wouldn’t do it out of choice.


The kind of books the kids are reading seems like it should be important. Not all books are the same: you’d assume that the kids reading Tolstoy are going to have different outcomes from those of the kids reading Mills & Boon (they’re reading books in 1986, remember!). The data we have on this isn’t the best: kids weren’t asked what the most recent book was they’d read for pleasure, just the last book they’d read, so there’s a disproportionate number of GCSE set texts. However, we do find out a bit about their favourite genre. It turns out, actually, the so-maligned teenage sci-fi readers have almost identical outcomes to those who self-identify as preferring non-genre fiction. Those are the biggest two groups; non-fiction readers are slightly more likely to end up at university, but it’s not a big difference. In fact, the only group appearing to do worse are those who read romance literature: all but one of those are


girls, though, and we already know that girls were less likely to go to university in the eighties. (It turns out they’re also much more likely to get divorced, but I’m not down that rabbit hole yet.)


Of course, we know from our own experience that talking about readers and non-readers isn’t always a helpful distinction. For some of the kids who aren’t reading at 16, it might just be a temporary blip. While reading behaviour is certainly volatile, there are big differences between genders: 29% of those girls who said they only read ‘sometimes’ when they were 10 were reading several times a week by age 16; only 7% of boys said the same. However, 70% of those who said they never read as teenagers were reading at least once a month by the time they were 33. While reading behaviour at 16 is a very strong predictor of reading later on in life compared to things like parents’ social class, having children oneself is a much better predictor. It’s no surprise that those people with kids and a full-time job have less time to read than those people with neither.


What should we take away from this data? The original report says that there’s something special about reading for pleasure, compared with both formal reading environments and other leisure activities, and all our results bear this out, for all groups in society. We should be careful about concluding too much: a straightforward account assumes that explicitly highbrow reading has greater advantages than other types, which


doesn’t


turn out to be the case. However, we should ensure that whenever children


and


teenagers want to read, they should have


the


opportunity to do so. n


Mark Taylor is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Nuffield College, Oxford.


4th edition  with 759





  


If children sometimes ask: “Who can I read next? Who writes like my favourite author?”, this book holds the answers. It lists writers  


5-7, 8-11, 12-14 and 14+, and 


• • • 


• •


 


ISBN 9781905499403 • £21.99  LISU • tel 01509 635680 •  • 


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