Professor Topping is author of the annual What Kids are Reading report

IF you are a parent and you want to help your child out in life, read to them. Read to them while they are still too young to quite understand the words. Read to them as much as possible. And when they are old enough to read themselves, encourage them to continually challenge themselves with the books they read.

There is no doubt that parents can make a massive difference to how well their children read. And how well children read can impact on their whole lives. But this is not solely the responsibility of parents. Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings have placed the UK outside the world’s top 20 countries for reading for over a decade now. The Scottish education system and Government also must act.

Parents need to start early. Even with two-year-olds, parents reading to children results in the adult using much more vocabulary and having many more conversational turns than would be the case in normal conversation.

This is true for both high and low education-level mothers, demonstrating that reading to children – contrary to myth – is not something just for “posh” people.

This enhancement of early language stimulates the brain when it is most receptive to signals of this sort. Early language acquisition has long-reaching effects on reading and language behaviour, and on the corresponding neuro-circuitry that supports linguistic function into the school-age years. Children’s pre-school language predicts their later performance at school, not only in literacy but also in other subjects.

As children grow up they are influenced by many factors, both within and beyond school. Primary schools do a pretty good job in encouraging children to read books that are challenging for them and this degree of challenge is important if children are to develop their reading skills. Unfortunately, the difficulty of books read plateaus at secondary school, where pupils are still reading books that children in upper primary could read.

As the children’s chronological age increases, their reading falls further and further behind. By the time pupils reach 16 their reading age typically falls to at least three years behind. This is extremely worrying.

Parents of secondary school pupils should encourage their children to read books of greater difficulty. This does not mean telling them what to read, since parental views are likely to be out of date. But it does mean they should be suggesting a range of books of higher difficulty, as well as advising youngsters that this will have an effect on their examination and job prospects. Of course, teachers should be doing this as well.

However, as children grow up they pay less heed to the opinions of their parents and teachers and are more influenced by their peers, some of whom will view reading as “uncool”. Consequently, we need to involve children themselves and encourage them to recommend books they have found both interesting and difficult to other children.

Fortunately we find that those books children have voted their favourites (as opposed to the most-read) tend to be more difficult, yet the children still read them with understanding. A motivating book makes all the difference.

Reading habits have changed somewhat over the years. Authors such as Roald Dahl, Francesca Simon, JK Rowling, Julia Donaldson and Jacqueline Wilson have sustained their popularity but others have not. Roderick Hunt, Jeff Kinney and David Walliams have emerged as new highly popular authors while Zoe Sugg, also known as YouTube star Zoella, has become very popular with secondary pupils. This has led to Sugg being accused of causing declining standards but focusing on her obscures a wider and worrying trend. Reading easy books is certainly better than reading no books at all but it does not have any effect on developing reading skill.

Parents can help to arrest the decline in literacy by encouraging reading at a higher level of difficulty throughout the secondary years. Schools need to do likewise but must also encourage and facilitate peer-to-peer recommendations as much as possible.

At a policy level, the amount of time allocated to independent reading in school is far too little and governmental intervention is necessary. This, of course, means identifying what is going to be left out of the overcrowded curriculum to accommodate this increase. Doing so will inevitably be met with considerable opposition.

However, given the importance of reading to children’s ability to master a wide range of subjects vital to their future and that of the country, we cannot afford not to make these hard choices.

Professor Topping is author of the annual What Kids are Reading report.