Reading frequency among school pupils has plunged since the early phase of the Covid pandemic, according to research that is set to spark fresh fears over literacy skills and the attainment gap.

A study by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) found just 28 per cent of participating 8 to 18-year-olds said they were reading daily in their free time in 2022 – down from just over 30% in 2021 and nearly 38% in May 2020. The latest figure is the second lowest since the survey began in 2005. 

The research – which covered Scotland, England and Wales, and involved more than 70,000 students from 327 schools – also reveals that the proportion of individuals aged 8 to 18 who enjoy reading “very much” or “quite a lot” sank from 51.5% in 2021 to 47.8% this year. In May 2020, the percentage was 55.9%.

NLT experts said in their report that time freed up during the initial lockdown helped boost engagement with books and other types of text. But they warned that this positive effect had since evaporated. Worryingly, more than one in four participants in the 8-18 age bracket (26.5%) said they could not find things to read that interested them.

Bosses at the Scottish Book Trust (SBT), which receives part of its funding from the Scottish Government, have said a range of measures were put in place to boost the availability of books during and after lockdown.

However, the NLT document stresses fewer British children and young people enjoyed reading and read in their free time in 2022 compared with the previous two years, and many of the years before. “This is particularly the case for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and, within this group, for boys,” it adds.

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The survey’s Scottish sample, with 997 responses, is relatively small and NLT bosses have cautioned against drawing firm conclusions about the situation north of the Border. Nevertheless, the findings are likely to fuel concern after data revealed reductions in the proportion of pupils achieving the expected Curriculum for Excellence levels in literacy over the course of the pandemic.

The NLT report states: “The first national lockdown in spring 2020 was a very difficult time, but it also saw an unprecedented increase in levels of reading enjoyment. 

“Our research into children and young people’s reading during this time showed that more enjoyed reading, and read more often, than before the pandemic. Indeed, 55.9% of children told us that they enjoyed reading while schools were closed (only slightly lower than the 2016 peak), with many saying that simply having more time had helped them to (re)engage with reading.

“However, existing gaps in reading enjoyment increased during this period, with boys from disadvantaged backgrounds particularly at risk of poor reading engagement. Furthermore, the overall increase in reading enjoyment levels was only partially sustained as children returned to school. 

“This year’s survey shows that any gains in reading enjoyment and frequency seen in the early part of the pandemic have since been completely eroded.”

The NLT report also highlights growing differences between boys and girls. “The gender gap in reading enjoyment increased threefold (from 2.9 to 9.3 percentage points) between 2020 and 2022, while the gap between children who receive FSMs and their peers more than doubled (from 2.1 to 5.0pp),” it states. “Boys who receive free school meals (FSMs) continue to be of particular concern, with just two in five (39.8%) of this group enjoying reading in 2022 compared with 46.3% in 2020. The picture is not much better when it comes to reading frequency, with just three in ten (28%) of children and young people reporting reading daily in their free time in 2022, the second lowest level recorded since 2005. 

“Again, gaps in daily reading in relation to gender and socio-economic background have increased in recent years, with the gender gap almost doubling between 2019 and 2022 (from 4.6 to 7.8pp) and the gap between children who do and do not receive FSMs increasing from 3.2 to 4.2pp.”

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Marc Lambert, SBT chief executive, stressed his organisation had acted speedily to support children, young people and families following the closure of schools and libraries during lockdown.

Describing more recent initiatives, he added: “At the start of this new school year, Scottish Book Trust rolled out its national accreditation programme, Reading Schools. For the first time, every school in Scotland can take part and it is designed to foster a whole-school reading culture throughout school life.

"We also run the First Minister’s Reading Challenge, which focuses on the reading journeys of individual children, classes and groups in schools, libraries, and community groups. These programmes provide support, funding and resources to help bring the magic of reading to life for children.

"Reading for pleasure has huge impacts on children and young people – research has shown that it can improve wellbeing, boost attainment across the curriculum and open up opportunities. The need for our work has never been greater."