I attended a talk last week entitled 'How technology can make reading fun' put on by the energetic team from Book Machine. As usual people were at cross-purposes. Does technology help or hinder kids' reading? What's best a physical or digital book? Are screens for the under fives actually harmful? Is a multi-platform approach effective? Is a book collaboratively created published on a website still a book? Why are eBook sales down? Is Amazon supporting or stifling digital innovation in books?
These are all real questions, and they are good questions, but I don't think they are right.
What is really going on with kids and reading?
Kids' screen time is going through the roof. Tablet ownership even for five or six year olds is hitting saturation point. Under nines are glued to YouTube; older kids are gaming or on social networks. This is for hours a day. Add to that the school day, meal times, homework, research online and some TV - and you are out of time. The day is gone and a story never got a look in.
Parents who respond to questionnaires about their children's reading habitually say a book at bedtime is best. Research shows this is correct. I also agree - who wouldn't? But it is more wish-fulfilment than reality. Even parents with time on their hands, who can afford to buy books and who prioritise reading, struggle to make this happen regularly. What do the rest of us do? We hope that school is taking care of it.
British kids are the worst teenage readers in the developed world. We undertook research in March this year to focus on what is happening with three to seven years old and we found that nearly six per cent of them had never read a book, ever. That is almost 250,000 children in the UK not reading at all and we believe this is going to get worse.
It is a crisis.
There are many writers, publishers, teachers and literacy organisations doing great things to excite the next generation about reading; everything in fact except for reacting to kids' behaviour.
Kids are online, on screens and they are choosing content for themselves and they expect it to be gratifying - rewarding, gamified, connected and fun. Not all kids, not all the time, but the vast majority. And kids' books are not there. An uptick in sales of physical kids' books is great but it's irrelevant in comparison with the growth of Snapchat or YouTube.
Until reading competes head-on with these digital activities using a vocabulary and format that kids understand, their reading will only continue to decline. There is every opportunity to shift children's reading into the mainstream if we embrace reading on tablets and deploy the tools that have been proved to work elsewhere. The priority should be about getting kids to read more by doing it in a way that they enjoy. It's that simple.