Growing Up A Reader: Conversations with children and young people about reading

Posted 1 year ago by John

The reading habits of children and young people are changing.  A 2016 study published by the National Literacy Trust, exploring the reading habits of 42,406 UK children and young people aged 8-18 demonstrated that children and young people report, on average, spending 2.5 times as many minutes reading something online as reading a book, with text messaging, websites, song lyrics, social networking sites, followed by fiction book reading, as the most popular reading activities.

So, what does it mean to be a young reader in the 21st century?  Our recent project, a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and Scottish Book Trust, with support from Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, was designed to explore this.   We trained primary and secondary school students as researchers to have conversations with their peers about their perceptions of ‘a reader’, what they read, why and how reading makes them feel.  These conversations were combined with those carried out between our research team and student researchers.

These conversations showed that for children, being a reader is still largely synonymous with books – it is someone who enjoys reading books and reads them frequently.  However, a reader was also seen by some as a person who chooses to read over other activities, can read well, knows their own reading interests and reads different text types.  When discussing how they feel when they read, children shared feelings of being entertained or happy “and it makes me laugh sometimes”, calm or relaxed: “I can drain all my emotions out on the book”, being immersed in the book “If it’s written very well, I feel like I’m there”, feeling excited “you don’t want to put it down because every page you read, there’s another cliff-hanger”, and recognised that different genres offer the reader different things “I kind of feel what the book wants me to feel”.  Interestingly, children also recognised that they were evolving as readers, how the content of previous books or texts they read when they were younger were very childish when they looked back on them: “When I re-read books that I used to read when I was little, and I’m like, oh my gosh, how did I like that joke!” 

Teenagers, on the other hand, shared a much wider range of reading habits during their conversations, many recognising that they used to read books more frequently, but for various reasons, including lack of time “I think as you get older you just have less free time”, lack of encouragement “it’s more encouraged in children” and competing social activities “as you get older you go out more” as reasons for their declining interest in books: “And I guess the interest just fizzled out…. I think that’s what happens with most people. With most of my friends – they used to read much more….. it’s a dying trend, you know?”  On the other hand, teenagers were often on their phone or using other text types as a way to follow emerging interests in topics that were important to them “I read a lot of blogs. Mainly about, like, global warming, or issues in the world. Or, like about veganism, or stuff like that”; “I’m quite into bikes and stuff, so I’d read some stuff about…new bike events”.

These conversations with children and young people have provided us with important insights into how ‘reading’ is perceived in the 21st century.  Large scale national surveys provide an important account of the reading habits of children and young people and how these have changed over the last decade - the National Literacy Trust conducted their first survey in 2005.  However, it is conversations that give us insight into their perceptions of a reader, the depth and types of experiences they have when they read and how the reading activities they are involved in now are shaping who they become as they enter early adulthood.  

If you would like to learn more about our project, you can visit our website:  In this, our project team and GUAR guests have reflected on their own memories of being a reader, sharing the books/texts that have been important to them and why.  In these personal accounts of their reading histories we often gain an insight into their lives, showing the power of books and texts to start a conversation with others and learn more about them through the texts that have been an important to them.

Indeed, as one of the teenagers we interviewed said: “reading - it brings up a person….it also brings up a personality, and it gives you things to talk about with other people”

Reading, while often considered a solitary activity, offers many wonderful ways to start a conversation and connect with others.   

This article has been written by Dr Sarah McGeown, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, University of Edinburgh, with input from Katherine Wilkinson (Scottish Book Trust), Valentina Andries, Jane Bonsall and Danielle Howarth (all University of Edinburgh).  We would like to thank our GUAR student researchers for their work on this project!

Scottish Book Trust

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