Reading in Primary Schools: Guide

Jonathan Doherty | View as single page | Feedback/Impact
Reading matters
The science behind reading
Teaching reading in schools
Extending reading
Case studies
Strength of Evidence
Areas for further research
Editor's Comments
Online communities

Young people reading

‘He that loves reading has everything within his reach’ —William Godwin

Reading changes lives. It has a positive impact on mental health and well-being. It builds creativity and imagination, knowledge and skills, empathy and understanding. It connects people and strengthens communities. It improves prospects and shapes life chances (Hilhorst et al., 2018). It is a key driver for closing the attainment gap in schools.  Being able to read fluently is key to educational achievement. Without a strong foundation in literacy, children cannot access to a rich and diverse curriculum in schools. Poor literacy limits opportunities not only at school, but in life, economically and in terms of a wider pleasure and appreciation of the written word. Those who cannot read well are at a constant disadvantage. Pupils who can read are more likely to succeed at school, achieve good qualifications, and subsequently enjoy fulfilling and rewarding careers. Participation in this intellectual and cultural heritage depends upon universal, high standards of literacy. In addition to its substantial practical benefits, reading is one of life’s profound joys (DfE, 2015).

Reading is a skill we take for granted yet one that is essential for everyone. As a child grows up, being able to read well directly helps learning in school and, also opens them up to a world of discovery, stories and opportunities. Children receive many benefits from being able to read: educational, cognitive, psychological and emotional that last throughout their lives. Being able to read

  • improves brain connectivity
  • increases vocabulary and comprehension
  • promotes the ability to empathize
  • aids in sleep readiness
  • reduces stress
  • lowers blood pressure and heart rate
  • combats depression symptoms
  • prevents cognitive decline through aging
  • contributes to a longer, fuller life

Reading patterns in young people

Data from the UK National Literacy Trust survey in 2019 (Clark & Teravainen-Goff, 2020) reveal a stark picture of young people’s reading habits in the UK and a gradual decline year on year. Only 53% of young people said they enjoyed reading and levels of reading enjoyment were at their lowest recorded level since 2013. Fewer young people said that they read daily in their free time. At the same time, attitudes towards reading have remained relatively unchanged. The link between reading engagement and skill is also clear. Young people who enjoy reading are three times more likely to read above the level expected for their age than those non-readers enjoy reading (30.1% vs 8.1%). Young people who read daily in their free time are twice as likely to read above the level expected for their age than children who don’t read daily (37.6% vs 14.2%).

Young people in disadvantage

Every year in England, numbers of children leave primary school without the confidence and fluency in reading they need. This has a significant effect on their learning, life chances and engagement with reading, and long-term economic and social impact. It is estimated that poor reading skills will cost the UK economy £32.1bn by 2025 (Clark & Teravainen-Goff, 2017). Krashen (2016) reporting an earlier study (2004) showed that children of poverty have fewer books at home, in their classroom and school libraries. They live in areas with fewer bookshops and with public libraries that are open for far fewer hours and have far fewer books. Socioeconomic status at the individual and school-level are positively related to literacy achievement in all English-speaking countries (Buckingham et al., 2013) A persistently large number of children struggle to learn to read at a basic level, and those children are disproportionately from socially disadvantaged families.  Low social economic status (SES) does not destine a child to literacy underachievement, but to argue that it is not important is to misconstrue a wealth of research findings. The relationship between SES and literacy is attributable to a number of factors (e.g. family background, mother’s qualifications, opportunity, etc). Identifying these factors and understanding the processes by which they work and the impact they have, is a key to reducing the impact of socioeconomic disadvantage on children’s literacy behaviours and achievements.

International findings. Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Whilst the model of reading presented in this Guide is a holistic one, incorporating reading for pleasure as well as reading as a skill to interpret text, international comparisons provide important data on young peoples’ reading performance. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a framework for examining the extent to which students from around the world have foundation reading literacy skills at age 15. According to the agreed PISA definition, Reading literacy is ‘understanding, using and reflecting on written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society’. This is a dynamic interpretation of reading literacy and one that emphasises the interaction between reading skills and their application (OECD,2002). Reading literacy results show that all countries face common challenges, in raising overall student reading literacy levels and in reducing disparities between the best and worst readers. Results show unequivocally that improvement in reading literacy performance relies not just on improving student cognitive skills but also on increasing their engagement in reading. This has implications not only for home learning but for school systems where there is a need for schools to think carefully about how to engage young people as readers.

In the majority of countries, as well as on average across OECD countries, reading performance has remained stable, or moved with no clear direction of change. Eighteen participants in PISA saw improvements in their students’ reading performance since their first participation in PISA in 2000 (OECD, 2020). In almost all countries/economies, high-performing students are expanding their repertoire of skills as the demand for more complex reading processes increases. However, trends in achievement among low-performing students, and the widening of performance disparities in many countries, are worrying. Singapore improved over its (already) high performance in 2009; Estonia, Germany, Macao (China) and Poland moved from average or below-average performance in their first participation to above-average performance. Evolving technologies have changed the ways people read and exchange information, whether at home, at school or in the workplace. In many respects, the challenges that readers encounter today, in a highly digitalised environment, are greater than those encountered in the world of printed books, manuals and newspapers. To navigate successfully the information provided in electronic text formats, people need to use complex strategies to analyse, synthesise, integrate and interpret relevant information from multiple sources when they read. When PISA assessed reading literacy in 2001, only Canada and Norway had populations where over 50% used the Internet. By 2018, the proportion not using the internet across OECD countries had shrunk to less than 5%.

Progress in the International Literacy Reading Study (PIRLS)

Fifty countries from around the world participated in the PIRLS 2016 international assessment of reading comprehension. In every country there was a range of reading achievement from basic skills to advanced comprehension. The Russian Federation and Singapore had the highest reading achievement on average. These countries also had more than one-fourth of their students reaching the PIRLS Advanced International Benchmark. Students reaching this level interpreted, integrated, and evaluated story plots and information in relatively complex texts. Hong Kong, Ireland, Finland, Poland, and Northern Ireland also performed very well, with approximately one-fifth of their students reaching the Advanced Benchmark. Internationally there are more good readers than there were 15 years ago. The gender gap in reading achievement has favoured girls since 2001 and does not appear to be closing. Good readers have home environments that support literacy where foundations for literacy learning are laid. 39% of students had parents who reported often engaging their children in early literacy activities such as reading, talking, or singing to them as well as telling them stories and teaching them to write alphabet letters.  95% of students had very positive attitudes to reading and many had a high degree of self-efficacy in computer use and digital reading. (PIRLS 2021 offers assessment of literary and informational reading in a digital format). Across the countries, students had higher reading achievement on average if they attended schools that were well resourced and academically oriented to reading. Teaching reading was a high priority in Primary schools internationally.


Buckingham, J., Wheldall, K. & Beaman-Wheldall, R. (2013) Why poor children are more likely to become poor readers: The school years. Australian Journal of Education. Vol, 57. Issue 3, pp.190-213. 

Clark, C. & Teravainen-Goff, A. (2017) What it means to be a reader at age 11: valuing skills, affective components and behavioural processes. An outline of the evidence. London: National Literacy Trust.

Clark, C. & Teravainen-Goff, A. (2020) Children and young people’s reading in 2019.  Research report: Findings from our Annual Literacy Survey. London: National Literacy Trust.

DfE (2015) Reading: the next steps. Supporting higher standards in schools. London: HMSO.

Hilhorst, S., Lockey, A. & Speight, T. (2018)  A Society of Readers. London: DEMOS.

Krashen, S. (2004) The Power of Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann and Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Krashen, S. (2016) The Researcher’s Perspective. The Purpose of Education, Free Voluntary Reading, and Dealing with The Impact Of Poverty. School Libraries Worldwide Volume 22, Number 1. 

Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Foy, P., & Hooper, M. (2017) PIRLS 2016. International Results in Reading. Lynch School of Education, Boston College: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center and International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.


OECD (2002) Reading for Change – Performance and Engagement across Countries. Paris: OECD.

OECD (2020) PISA in Focus 2020. ISSN: 22260919 (online)