Because non-fiction matters, too

Last week, Warwick Davis, of Star Wars and Harry Potter fame, visited a primary school in Deptford as part of the Get London Reading Campaign. When talking with the children about reading, his main approach was to urge them to read absolutely anything they can get their hands on – whether fiction or non-fiction.

A Great Approach

The fact that he highlighted non-fiction – or fact-based books – stood out to me as an approach that perhaps isn’t used regularly enough to entice kids to read. It’s not just books and stories we need to be getting them to read, after all, but absolutely anything that gets them responding to the power of words. If non-fiction texts are what capture their imagination, then fantastic.

Guinness Book of Records 2013Warwick mentioned that he wasn’t a fan of fiction as a child – something which I’m sure many children can relate to. “Even if you’re not so into reading, it doesn’t have to be fiction. Comic books, Guinness Book of Records, that’s what I grew up reading because I love facts,” Warwick said.

Boys in particular have been seen to find non-fiction a much more appealing alternative to fiction – for numerous reasons. For example, boys love to swap facts with each other, so facts and information conveyed in an imaginative way can really appeal to their mindset. Non-fiction books also allow for dipping in and out of a book (or website – or whatever the format), allowing them to pick the bits that interest them and not feel like they have to read entire passages in one sitting.

The Best Non-fiction

In the past, despite the availability of factual books in schools and libraries, they were frequently books that spelled out facts in painstaking detail – not necessarily in an appealing way. They just covered topics required by the National Curriculum. Nowadays, however, attractive covers and glossy images entice children in, with more of a balance between images and texts. The best non-fiction books address more than just what we think they should know – they address children’s interests and curiosities. They develop their vocabularies and build their knowledge of the world, sometimes strung together with narrative (although these are few and far between…)

National Geographic Kids In the past few years, however, many publishers and booksellers seem to have begun to forget the importance of fact-based books in young people’s lives. Children’s non-fiction authors do not tend to receive the same amount of attention that fiction authors receive, and the lower marketing budgets frequently allocated for them means that such books are much less likely to be reviewed.

A Worrying Decline…

Just last year, 26 authors wrote to the Guardian about a worrying decline in non-fiction books for children: “Once, there were hundreds of such books available, covering every topic imaginable – but, almost overnight, it seems, the market for them has almost vanished. Not, we think, because children don’t want to know about the real world.”

The reason for it, they suggested, was the ‘dearth, or even death of school and public libraries’, along with high street retailers cutting back on stocking fact-based books that aren’t character based or tied into TV series. And then there’s the fact that the internet now provides so much information. But what about those who want the convenience of a book to dip in and out of, or who need enticing in by a shiny package? What about those who, as schools begin to focus more on reading for pleasure in the National Curriculum, would rather pick a non-fiction book when their friends dive for the fiction shelves?

Publishers and bookstores, these authors say, really need to “start to take risks again” with this genre, which seems to be getting left behind.

National Non-fiction DayMore To Be Done…

Some effort is being made to highlight the place of non-fiction in children’s lives. The Society of Authors has developed an award, the ALCS Award for Educational Writing – awarded for outstanding examples of traditionally published non-fiction, and we also have National Non-Fiction Day, which is celebrated every first Thursday in November (a Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ national event).

Nevertheless, there’s definitely more that needs to be done. If we want kids to be engaged with reading, the main thing is that we look to ways to feed their interests:  whether that’s books or websites – fiction or non-fiction. And the most important thing is that, when they do decide what they want, these texts are readily available and accessible for them – no matter the content.

Missing the point: reading for the sheer pleasure of it

The other day, I was in the aisles of WH Smith’s book section when I overheard a conversation between a parent and her child, which went something like this:

‘Well, just pick one! We haven’t got much time, so what do you want?’
The little girl was looking up at the picture book shelves a little sheepishly. She responded, ‘I don’t know, there are so many…’
The parent then picked one off the shelf and gave it to her. ‘Here, this one will do, won’t it?’
‘But it’s too tricky!’ said the girl.
‘Well, how about this one then?’ she pulled another from the shelf and handed it to her.
‘That’s the same. I can’t read it…’
To this, the lady seemed to lose her temper and said ‘Fine!’ before putting the book back on the shelf and leading the girl from the store.

Chossing booksI realise I’m in no position to judge when it comes to this sort of situation. Having no children of my own, I can not imagine the day-to-day challenges a parent faces in terms of time and energy when they want to give their child the best they can: I think it was great that the mother was taking the time to try to get a book for her child in the first place. But I also thought the way she went about it might have had more of a negative effect on the little girl’s likelihood to want to keep reading as she gets older.

From this shop experience it seemed that, from the little girl’s point of view, she’s now been told that she should struggle ahead to read the books that she thinks are too tricky for her, or she won’t get a book at all. She’s also been told that she did something wrong by not being able to make a very quick decision about which book to choose, and was punished by not getting anything. But from the parent’s point of view, she did want to get her child a book but just didn’t have the time to stand around all day waiting for her to choose something. So was anyone to blame?

What this pointed out to me was the way that challenging circumstances and parents’ lack of time may be a contributing factor in the decline in reading for pleasure amongst children today. It’s probably not new – countless research efforts by the likes of Scholastic and the National Literacy Trust have considered such factors in their approaches to literacy research. So I wasn’t surprised by some of the points made by Egmont in their latest press release about their Reading Street Consumer Insight research.

In it, they highlight how lifestyle can simply get in the way of the time parents have to encourage their children to read and affects the importance they place on reading as something that should be done just for pleasure:

“The first chapter of our new Reading Street report into children’s reading reveals that some of the key benefits of reading for pleasure in childhood are being over-looked because of a challenging set of circumstances faced by families and the way we live today.”

Is the lack of time given by parents to portraying every step of a child’s reading – from choosing a book to reading a book – as an enjoyable experience having a detrimental effect on children’s perceptions of reading?

Egmont point out the fact that the benefits of reading for pleasure as seen by parents taking part in their study are purely educational and developmental, as opposed to anything to do with the pure pleasure of reading. They make a good point of saying that this may be a mistake – are we overlooking a real benefit of reading here? Their aim now is to find out how and why reading thrives in some families and to use this to determine how to inspire children to read.

I for one am looking forward to learning more about Egmont’s research results. The publisher really stands out to me, alongside such children’s publishers as Scholastic, for the contributions they make to the literacy landscape. I love the way they provide advice on their website pages about the benefits of reading at different ages and how to make choosing books easier (as well as publishing this useful guide for parents). Perhaps more advice like this is needed, or simply more awareness amongst parents, so that scenes like the one I saw in WH Smith become a little less frequent…

The New Scholastic Research Results: a flashback to my dissertation

Earlier today, the Bookseller reported on the findings of the new Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report (4th edition). It’s a report that’s been conducted since 2006, based on a survey of adults and children in the US (1,074 children between 6 and 17 in this one), giving useful insight into reading habits and trends.

The results didn’t really come as a surprise to me, having read their previous reports from the last few years, but some of the statistics are of interest – especially those concerning rates of reading for pleasure. It’s an area of interest to me, having spent so much of my time looking into it during research for my MA dissertation last year.

E-books

The report seemed to primarily focus on e-books:

  • Although there was a sharp rise in the amount of children who had read an e-book (46% of children in this study as opposed to 25% of children in their 2010 study), 80% of the children still did most of their reading from print books.
  • The main time a print book came across as preferable to an e-book was at bedtime and for reading along with friends, whereas e-books were seen as useful for reading when travelling or when they didn’t want friends knowing what they were reading.

Of interest to me, was that 21% of the children who had access to e-books said that they were now reading more books for pleasure. Moreover, the report found that ‘half of children age 9–17 say they would read more books for fun if they had greater access to e-books – a 50% increase since 2010’. Does this point to e-books being directly beneficial for encouraging increased reading for pleasure in children?

Reading for pleasure

New scholastic research However, the number of children in the survey who read for pleasure between 5-7 times a week (considered to be ‘frequent readers’) decreased from 37% in their 2010 survey to 34% in this recent survey. Although not a huge decrease, it is still notable that there continues to be a decrease at all.

There can be many reasons for this. In fact, it was one of the key areas for my MA research. The reasons for the amount of time (or lack thereof) a child spends reading for pleasure are vast – and are partly believed to be based on children’s perceptions of reading – such as the importance they place on reading for pleasure. It can be due to parental influence (e.g. whether their parents visibly read or not); access to books (e.g. money to buy books); time (e.g. versus time spent doing homework); competitive media (e.g. leisure time spent playing video games, on computers, watching TV) and much more.

The additional finding that younger children are more likely to read for pleasure than those in the older age bracket is not new. In fact, this is known to be around the difficult ‘transition’ age, where children move from primary to high school and adjust their reading preferences – sometimes finding it difficult to move from one age level of literature to another. But, again, there are also many other reasons why children’s interest in reading for pleasure declines with age.

A potential link? The focus of my work…

In their previous reports, they found that children’s use of media – including social media – increased with age, documenting this right through from 6 to 17 years old. But, in this report, they only seem to have reported on the 12 to 17 year age-range. Still, the increase is there.

In my work, I noticed that the previous reports (as well as reports by the National Literacy Trust in the UK), documented this rate of reading for pleasure decreasing with age whilst the rate of other media consumption increased (e.g. social media, playing games, using a mobile phone). I therefore began wondering whether there might be a way to tackle this potential link…

This is what led to me coming up with the idea of a platform that would utilise children’s growing interests in other media to engage them with reading for pleasure after the age of 8. I looked into what drew them to this other media, and found another potential link between the importance placed by children on social interaction as they grew older and the other media they were using. I conducted research for my platform concept with children across libraries and schools and came up with some interesting results – with an extremely enthusiastic audience reaction to my concept. The research is now being used by The Reading Agency as they develop a similar model.

Importance

Scholastic’s research was instrumental in me putting two and two together to come up with this idea, which I hope will be of some use. Reading for pleasure is directly linked with literacy and academic achievement and also has an influence on a person’s economic and social wellbeing, so efforts to promote it are of paramount importance. Such reports by Scholastic, as well as such bodies as the National Literacy Trust, are of use to everyone involved in the effort to improve literacy rates in the UK and abroad – whether it achieves a deeper understanding of the issues or provides new ideas for tackling them. However, with this new survey documenting an increase in the number of parents concerned about the time their children spend reading for pleasure (up to 47% from 36% in 2010), it’s clear that much more still needs to be done…

Read the full report here: http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/kfrr