Is the future of reading digital?

Martin Galway, Head of School Programmes at National Literacy Trust
Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The National Literacy Trust’s head of school programmes, Martin Galway, says that schools should embrace eBooks, which will equip young children for the future and instil a love of reading.

In the early 2000s we saw the dawn of eBooks and, with this innovation, nervousness that eBooks would mark the death of the traditional printed book. This isn’t without precedent. The death of the novel had been heralded early in the previous century. And we know how that panned out.

Fast forward to today and we have teachers across the country harnessing the benefits of digital reading resources, as a key ingredient in the wider diet of their reading offers. Such practice helps us better appreciate the difference these resources are making for students – irrespective of age, gender, background or ability.

Our recent report, ‘Using eBooks to support reading for pleasure in 2023’, in association with Pearson, offers up some fascinating insights from this burgeoning area of practice. More than half of teachers reported using digital tools and resources to support literacy in the classroom.

Three times as many teachers, whose pupils had access to eBooks, rated their school’s culture of reading for pleasure as excellent than those who did not. Yet the research shows that the digital divide and teacher confidence could be limiting their potential impact.

Our report, ‘Children and Young People’s Reading in 2023’. starkly illustrates that the number of children reading for pleasure is in a downward spiral. As children get older their reading for pleasure levels freefall.

It strikes me that there are many reasons for this. Our report describes the current situation but does not explain them, so any speculation on my part is tentative. It is likely to include, amongst other factors, lack of access to a diverse range of books and quiet spaces; the cost-of-living crisis placing more demands on parents’ time, or a lack of adult reading role models. Then there’s the curriculum, a very full curriculum that all-too-often can squeeze reading aloud out of some timetables.

There’s a false economy at play here. We’re all determined to develop reading skills as far as possible, and we know very well that reading for pleasure fuels reading development.

The evidence base for the benefits of reading for pleasure is extensive. The recently published revision of the Reading Framework (DfE, 2023) carves out new space that amplifies the importance of volitional reading. The more you read, the stronger your reading. The stronger the reading, the greater your confidence and motivation to read more, the more language and insights and emotions you’ll experience, and so on. It’s a beautiful, enriching cycle.

The ability to read impacts a child’s life chances, both in and far beyond their school years. The Reading Framework makes clear the importance of reading for pleasure in terms of reading development, academic achievement, and enhanced mental health and wellbeing. Reading is life-altering. In support of this, the framework includes a new section devoted to the sorts of practices and provision most likely to support the development of keen volitional readers.

Our report makes clear the need for urgent action to address worrying declines in reading attitudes and behaviours among children and young people. At the National Literacy Trust, we have gathered data that suggests that digital reading resources can help to engage the most disengaged readers, most particularly boys and pupils on free school meals.

There are other practical classroom benefits in making greater use of eBooks. For example, there is growing recognition that picture books offer accessible and time-efficient means by which to develop spoken language and comprehension. E-readers provide a means to share the full widescreen splendour of these books without the contortions required to move the book under a visualiser, or the limitations of the more traditional pivoting of a handheld book, in the hope that the assembled children are sufficiently well positioned to take in all the detail, all of the elements that add to the pleasure and meaning-making of the interplay between text and image.

The findings of our report into eBook use also shows that the impact of eBooks and digital resources extends beyond the classroom. Some respondents suggest that by offering children, and parents alike, the option of eBooks, it crosses the hard threshold of reinforcing the benefits of reading at home. Some families prefer eBooks, others don’t, so it’s a way of being able to meet parents in the middle and give them a choice too.

But despite all these benefits, what is clear from the Using eBooks to support reading for pleasure in 2023 report is that we still have a number of hurdles to overcome.

Only one in three teachers who use digital tools say their pupils have access to a school eBook library and just one in six have access to one at home. What is more, reports of lack of staff training and professional development, as well as a lack of staff confidence around digital resources all have the potential to limit the positive impact of resources like these.

This is why research is so important; by presenting the data and statistics to teachers and schools, we can empower them to make informed, strategic decisions around the use of digital tools as part of our provision geared towards encouraging and supporting volitional reading.

If your school is yet to embrace eBooks and digital resources, having a designated teacher who acts as your school advocate will be a great start. A person who can look at the research, oversee and champion the change with their peers, senior leaders, and parents, and who will carve out time for training, follow up support, review, and further planning.

Introducing digital resources isn’t something that can be done overnight. It will require an investment of time for planning, communication, implementation, and review. That said, it need not be a daunting task. The Education Endowment Foundation has developed a great school guide to implementation that can be used with digital change in mind, including a recommendations poster that is free to download.

As my team and I work to develop understanding and practice around reading for pleasure, as we engage with and contribute towards the associated evidence-base, we are increasingly sure that there is a bright future for eBooks and digital resources in literacy.

When done well and as part of a broader provision of reading materials, eBooks can provide numerous benefits to all children of all ages. Whether it’s reading on a mobile phone, tablet, eReader or laptop, reading on a screen provides another gateway, a convenient option, and another way to support reading for pleasure.

Let’s embrace it and equip our young children for the future and instil a love of reading today.


Martin Galway, Head of School Programmes at National Literacy Trust

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