A UK-wide study of children’s reading habits released today reveals Scottish secondary school pupils are not reading challenging enough books.
In the later years of secondary school, pupils are reading at least three years below their chronological age – meaning many pupils sitting their National 4 and 5 examinations at age 16 have the reading ability of a 13-year-old or lower.
It In the final year of primary school, Scottish pupils are reading one year less than their chronological age but this gap doubles by the first year of secondary school.
The What Kids are Reading Report, analysed by the University of Dundee, examined the reading habits of almost one million children across Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and, for the first time, the Republic of Ireland.
Opposition politicians and Scotland’s largest teaching union said the findings were worrying and that ways needed to be found to encourage teenagers to expand their reading.
The top ten books chosen by primary and secondary school pupils north of the Border both have Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney in their top three.
Six books appear on both lists - Gangsta Granny by David Walliams, four titles of the Wimpy Kid series and Billionaire Boy also by Walliams.
The study of 29,524 pupils across Scotland also highlights a persistent problem across the UK in encouraging secondary pupils to read challenging and age-appropriate books.
Book difficulty levels rise sharply in the early years of formal education, meaning primary pupils are typically reading more advanced books for their chronological age.
However, this progress stops at around age 11 and the difficulty of books read falls as pupils get older. This decline exists among both boys and girls throughout the UK.
Professor Topping, professor of education and social research at the university, said reading should be spread across the curriculum and pupils should be encouraged to recommend books on social media and online.
“To avert a further slide in literacy levels in secondary schools, pupils should be encouraged to push themselves to read more difficult books. By their teenage years pupils are more likely to take advice from their friends and peers than their teachers and parents about the types of books they should be reading.
“With this in mind, teachers could encourage them to talk more openly about what they are reading and make appropriate suggestions to their classmates.”
Iain Gray, Labour shadow cabinet secretary for education, cited cuts to teacher numbers.
“This is further evidence of the stubborn attainment challenges we see in our classrooms, with development flat-lining by the middle of secondary school.
“These figures will be even worse when considered along the lines of the richest and poorest pupils – and are the result of a decade of SNP cuts to education.
“We have 3,500 fewer teachers under the SNP, and those in post are increasingly overworked and underpaid.”
Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary, said there was a need to focus on the basics.
“This study is deeply worrying and lays bare the full extent of the challenge that is facing schools as they try to raise attainment.
“Along with proficiency in numeracy, reading and writing are the keys that unlock the door to wider educational and employment opportunities.
“It is therefore vital that there is much more focus on the 3Rs and ensuring that all teachers feel fully confident in their own skills to teach them.” Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Tavish Scott said: “The Scottish government say improving literacy standards is top of their list of things that must be sorted. So a fall in reading standards is a huge worry for parents and teachers. The government need to explain why their educational improvement plan is not working.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said: “We would agree pupils should set aside time for reading for pleasure and should seek to challenge themselves in terms of book choices.
“It’s a mistake, however, to make sweeping generalised statements on the back of de-contextualised data designed to give instant feedback in a classroom setting. Simply getting teenagers, in particular, engaged in reading is a significant task.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Improving education and raising standards is this government’s number one priority. That is why our education reforms have a relentless focus on literacy and we are making a significant investment, through the Attainment Challenge and Pupil Equity Funding, to close the literacy attainment gap.
“Meanwhile the Scottish Book Trust has been piloting the First Minister’s Reading Challenge in secondary schools with the aim of encouraging pupils up to S3 to read for pleasure. Research shows this outweighs the impact of socio-economic background on pupils’ success at school.”