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A child reading in Kent, England

Pavan’s favourite activity is playing football outdoors. His second favourite is playing football indoors, and in third place is practising football skills against the sofa. Reading – the pursuit that Francis Bacon claimed “maketh a full man” – comes further down the eight-year-old’s list, behind school, going to discos, buying stuff, chatting to people, watching TV and playing on his Xbox games console.

Would he ever pick up a book for pleasure? “No,” Pavan shoots back jovially. “If I’m bored, I will ask my mum if I can play on her phone.” By this point, I am relieved that Michael Gove is not part of our conversation at a homework club in Harlesden Library, north London.

The UK education secretary has long feared that British children are “just not reading enough”. The same concern has been raised by publishers and literacy charities, which worry that new distractions – computer games, online videos, social networking – are pushing books off the shelf. More than 60 per cent of 18-to-30-year-olds now prefer watching television or DVDs to reading, according to a survey for the charity Booktrust. A similar proportion of young people think the internet and computers will replace books in the next 20 years.

The literacy debate received fresh impetus last October when a study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggested that vast numbers of young people were leaving school without the ability to read well. Of the 24 industrialised countries covered by the research, England was the only one that went backwards, with literacy and numeracy skills lower among the young – those aged 16 to 24 – than the old. (The results were little better in Northern Ireland; Scotland and Wales were not included in the study.)

The OECD’s hard-nosed economic concern with skills leads logically to reading for pleasure, which is closely associated with educational success. An analysis of the 1970 British cohort, tracking about 6,000 young people born in April of that year, found children’s test scores correlated more with how often they read than with how educated their parents were. “Being able to read a book mechanically is vital, but reading for pleasure shouldn’t be optional,” says Joanna Prior, managing director of Penguin UK. “The benefits will be reaped throughout a child’s life.”

For publishers, the commercial implications of a decline in literacy are obvious. In some ways the threat to the UK’s £3bn book market is more fundamental than that faced by the record industry: even when people stopped paying for music, they never stopped listening to it.

Literacy charities have tried various tricks to promote reading – including the Six Book Challenge, to get less confident readers in the habit; Quick Reads, which distributes short, easy texts for adults; and Premier League Reading Stars, which enlists top footballers to spend time with struggling schoolchildren. In areas such as Harlesden, such initiatives have drawn countless children and adults closer to books. But they are fragmented.

So literacy charities have come together under a single “Reading for Pleasure” campaign in the hope of having greater impact, particularly in lobbying government. “We need to slightly toughen up the message,” says Prior. “There’s a literacy crisis in the country. There shouldn’t be anybody who doesn’t read properly when they leave school.”

Views differ on the most effective interventions. Some focus on the period in which books enter a child’s life; some on the ages of 10 and 11, when other hobbies often take over; and others see the emotionally formative teenage years as the most important. But the wider point is clear: “If you’re going to engage a reader for life, you need to engage them before they become an adult,” says Louisa Livingston, head of consumer insight at Hachette UK.

That means making children comfortable around books, with soft-furnished areas in classrooms and personalised guidance so that each child can be directed to the books he or she might enjoy. School librarians, whose ranks are at risk from government funding cuts, should be seen as “book experts”, says Penguin’s Prior. Above all, while successive governments have fretted about test scores, publishers want politicians to recognise the importance of reading for pleasure. If that can be achieved, they argue, imaginative teaching methods will surely spring forth.

The social context is crucial. A 2011 National Literacy Trust survey of British children found that a third of respondents did not have books of their own. Of these, 19 per cent were below the reading level expected for their age, compared with 7.6 per cent of those who did own books.

Inequalities were also picked up in the OECD study. England and Northern Ireland showed “one of the stronger associations between socio­economic background and literacy proficiency” among the countries tested. What’s more, the report concluded, “unlike most other countries, this association is stronger among young people than among the overall adult population”.

Such issues have come to the fore in a parliamentary inquiry into adult literacy now under way. “Whether or not you use the word ‘class’, it is about home environments,” Helen Casey, an adult literacy expert, told MPs at its first session last month. “Kids spend 12 per cent of their time in school; they spend the rest of their time not in school. The culture they grow up in is really important,” said another expert, David Hughes. Yet at least one of the MPs seemed sceptical of that approach, suggesting that amounted to “excuses for the education profession”.

That is not the only apparent disconnect between educationalists and politicians. Gove wants children to study more books, and has amended the GCSE syllabus accordingly. His critics worry that will turn children away from reading for pleasure. “Teachers almost don’t have time for children to be relaxed around books,” says Sue Cowley, an educational author. “Reading starts to become something that’s done to be measured, not done out of choice.”

Some also detect an unwelcome snobbishness in Gove’s desire for the books to be harder – he has expressed particular gripes against John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (too short) and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series (too easy). “If someone’s reading a football magazine, shouldn’t we just be happy that they’re reading?” says Richard Mollet of the Publishers Association. “If a child is reading and enjoying the immersion, then surely that’s the most important thing.”

While that debate rumbles on, a wave of technological change means that children may find it harder to reserve time for reading. Technology has helped people to enjoy books – a backlit e-reader means no more torches under the duvet – but it has helped other media more. Long train journeys once meant hours reading or hours gazing out the window. Now, with an iPad, they can mean computer games and the previous evening’s TV programmes.

One option for publishers is to follow the music industry, encouraging authors to do even more events and engage more with social media so as to create “touchpoints” with their fans. Another is to adapt the books themselves. Interactive ebooks already offer multiple endings (a digital variation on the theme of “if you choose door A, turn to page 78”), and publishers are investing in apps that seek to lure infrequent readers with video and audio embellishments.

“There’s very much an experimental attitude at the moment,” says Jake Manion, creative director at animation company Aardman, which worked on HarperCollins’s The Hobbit app. “Smartphones haven’t been around that long and people are still writing the stories in the way they’ve always done.” The biggest change, Manion argues, will come in “five to 10 years”, by which point writers will be “so familiar with the technology that they’ll be creating stories in different ways”.

And then, perhaps, football practice might wait.

Henry Mance is the FT’s media correspondent


South Korea: An investment in the imagination

Bae Hyun-suh, a 10-year-old from Seoul, does not describe himself as an avid reader but still tries to visit his school library as much as possible, writes Song Junga.

“If I read books for 30 minutes, I get a stamp from the teacher. If I collect 10 stamps, I can skip homework once or do not have to clean the classroom for a week,” he says.

Thanks to this kind of encouragement by teachers and the government, the habit of reading is on the increase in South Korea. According to a survey conducted by the culture ministry last year, 96 per cent of Korean students aged above 10 read at least one book a year, the highest in seven years, while that ratio reached 71.4 per cent among South Korean adults – up 4.6 from 2011. The government aims to increase the ratio among adults to 80 per cent by 2018.

The culture ministry attributes this improvement to a government campaign to encourage reading and the use of public libraries – the proportion of South Koreans visiting at least once a year rose from 22.9 per cent in 2011 to 30.3 per cent last year. A scheme to encourage reading in the morning before classes start has also helped, with nearly 70 per cent of schools participating.

Such efforts are reflected in the results of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study published last October, in which the literacy proficiency of South Korean 16-24-year-olds was rated third out of 24 countries. “We are seeking various ways to encourage reading because reading books is the best way to foster creativity and imagination, which is the basis of the ‘creative economy’ and our vibrant culture,” says culture ministry official Ha Jae-yeol.

About 50 new public libraries are built annually, while spending on new books will be boosted by nearly 70 per cent this year to Won15bn (£8.4m). The government is also encouraging book clubs at schools and companies, with the aim of creating 100,000 by 2018. It plans to provide tax benefits for book purchases to support the struggling publishing industry and is seeking to persuade broadcasters to set aside more time for book-related programmes.

Some worry, however, that government support for reading risks being undermined by the effects of a highly competitive education system focused on the university entrance exam. “Primary school students read a lot but once they enter a middle or high school, they can’t afford to read books for pleasure because of the educational rat race,” says Jin Young-kyun, a spokesman for the Kyobo Bookstore, the country’s largest bookshop. “All they read is textbooks and those books that can raise their grades at school.”

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