Major UK-wide literacy study of over 1 million children reveals formula for literacy success

Also reveals this year’s most popular books in schools

• Over 1 million young people’s reading habits studied as the report reaches its eleventh year
• Reading motivation, appropriate reading challenge and reading practice time essential ingredients for literacy success
• J.K Rowling Harry Potter series dominates favourite books
• Roald Dahl, Jeff Kinney, and David Walliams amongst most-read authors

The biggest ever UK-wide literacy study by literacy and assessment provider Renaissance UK has found a clear formula for children’s literacy success: reading practice, reading for pleasure, and appropriate challenge of books.

The study of over 1 million pupils (1,057,720) across the UK and Ireland for the ‘What Kids Are Reading’ Report also reveals the most popular books and authors among the UK’s school children.

The report also shows that England and Wales are reading the most difficult books of the home nations, but with the worst comprehension, while Scotland, joint with Northern Ireland, has the best comprehension, but pupils in Scotland are reading the easiest books.

The report was written using Renaissance’s data and analysed by University of Dundee academic Professor Keith Topping.

Formula for literacy success

The comprehensive report found that reading practice (estimated engaged reading time) has a direct bearing on attainment of students across the board. The more time spent on reading practice, the better the student performed, regardless of ability or year group.

In addition, the report underlined the importance of reading motivation and reading for pleasure. Pupils’ favourite books were read with a better comprehension, often in spite of the text being of greater difficulty. In addition, less difficult texts which were not as favoured, sometimes had poorer comprehension by children.

Reading time also has a direct bearing on vocabulary expansion. From the beginning of primary school to the end of secondary school, students with an average daily reading time of 30+ minutes are projected to encounter 13.7 million words. At the end of secondary school, their peers who averaged less than 15 minutes of reading per day are likely to be exposed to only 1.5 million words. The difference is more than 12 million words. Children in between, who read 15–29 minutes per day, will encounter an average of 5.7 million words—less than half of the high-reading group but nearly four times that of the low-reading group.

Some researchers estimate students learn one new word of vocabulary for every thousand words read.[1] Using this ratio, a student who reads only 1.5 million words would learn only 1,500 new vocabulary words from reading, while a student who reads 13.7 million words would learn 13,700 new vocabulary terms—more than nine times the amount of vocabulary growth.

Children in primary and secondary school were found to be reading markedly more than last year, particularly those in primary school. While there is little to separate boys and girls in terms of their reading attainment, boys tend to prefer non-fiction, especially in secondary school and in turn, the non-fiction favoured books tend to be male-dominated books such as sports biographies.

The report also found that children should read books with appropriate challenge where possible. If reading is done at a level below the threshold of difficulty which promotes reading growth, referred to in the report as ‘Zone of Proximal Development’, little or no growth in attainment is likely to occur, but if reading is done at a level significantly above this threshold, the text will be too hard, and no or little growth in reading attainment occurs.

The report shows that each of these factors, reading motivation, reading time, and appropriate challenge all come into play for literacy success of a child as not one alone can be attributed to success – and recommends that teachers, librarians and parents should bear this in mind when recommending books for children.

Other recommendations in the report include; teachers and librarians encouraging peer discussion on favourite books, ensuring a diversity of choice of books on offer, and putting in place at least 15 minutes of dedicated reading time for children per day to ensure that they get enough reading practice.

Renaissance Director of Professional Services James Bell said:

“Literacy is at the heart of every successful education. Reading is fundamental to a broad range of subjects. Children need to understand their exam paper they’re facing, whether that’s maths, science, or history.

“Reading motivation, appropriate reading challenge and reading practice – this is the key to literacy success. We have to make sure that children are both challenged and charmed by the books they read.”

Professor Keith Topping said:

“This report gets under the skin of children’s reading habits in the UK, and the results are eye-opening. We can now see that balancing the three factors of appropriated reading challenge, reading practice, and reading motivation is fundamental for children’s reading progress.

“Although important, instilling reading culture in schools isn’t just about dedicated reading time. Teachers and librarians should also encourage lively classroom discussion about fiction, with children sharing favourite authors and titles. They should also be on hand to advise on books with appropriate challenge bespoke to the child’s interests. And of course it is important to encourage children to read outside of school,so letting them take books home is crucial. 

Favourite books and authors

The study for the 2019 What Kids Are Reading Report also found that:

• J.K Rowling dominates the favourite books within primary schools with her Harry Potter titles taking the top 7 spots. Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone comes out on top, with Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets second, and Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban third.
• In secondary schools, J.K Rowling again comes out on top with Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows. Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell takes second spot, with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline taking third.

In addition to measuring the books that young people most enjoyed, the study examines their most read books over the last academic year. It found that:

• Jeff Kinney remains the most widely-chosen and read author overall for the sixth year running, followed by David Walliams and then Roald Dahl.
• Jeff Kinney has replaced Roald Dahl as an enduring favourite among primary school pupils by taking five of the top ten most chosen and read books, with Roald Dahl taking just two – but the most widely read for that age group was Bad Dad by David Walliams.
• Roald Dahl, David Walliams and Jeff Kinney were the only authors to appear in the primary school top ten.
• For secondary school pupils, David Walliams’ book Gangsta Granny has remained at the top as the most widely-chosen and read book – with Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid coming second. However, Jeff Kinney’s books make up 6 of the top 10.