Updated: Aug 20, 2019
Christina Clark, Head of Research at the National Literacy Trust, is a member of the campaign working group. In this blog she introduces us to some of their latest research into links between well-being and literacy.
We’ve long known that a love of reading and writing can help children flourish at school and go on to succeed at work. But our latest research on the link between reading, writing and mental well being tells us that reading and writing for enjoyment can also help children lead happy and healthy lives.
This matters as the mental health of our children and young people is increasingly an area of concern. Indeed between 2015 and 2017 the Government announced new funding for mental health, including specific investment in perinatal services and eating disorder services for teenagers, and in July 2018, statutory health education in schools was announced.
There are a few studies that explore children and young people’s subjective wellbeing. However, to our knowledge, no one has looked at the link between how one feels about oneself and reading or writing. We therefore wanted to know how general mental wellbeing is related to several reading and writing variables, such as enjoyment, frequency, self-rated perceptions of skill and attitudes.
So, what did we do? In our latest Annual Literacy Survey of 49,047 children and young people aged 8 to 18, we focused on three aspects of mental wellbeing: life satisfaction, coping skills and self-belief. To explore how mental wellbeing in general is associated with aspects of reading and writing, we combined responses across the three components into one to create an overall Mental Wellbeing Index.
We found that children who enjoy reading and writing in their free time have significantly better mental well being than their peers who don’t. Indeed children who enjoy reading and writing, do it daily outside school and have positive attitudes towards literacy are three times more likely to have high levels of mental well being than their peers who are not engaged in reading and writing (39.4% vs 11.8%). On the flip side, not being engaged with reading and writing makes children twice as vulnerable to low levels of mental well being than their engages peers (37.4% vs 15%).
Previous research has shown that reading skill is linked to mental wellbeing, with children who struggle with reading having worse mental wellbeing outcomes. We had reading skill data for 1,098 pupils aged 11 to 15, which allowed us to explore not only the link between mental wellbeing and reading skill but also how important reading skill is when other reading components are considered. In line with previous studies, we found that children and young people who read at or above the level expected for their age have higher mental wellbeing scores, on average, than their peers whose reading skills are below expected levels.
However, what was particularly interesting was that when all the reading variables were considered simultaneously, reading skill was not found to be a significant predictor of mental wellbeing in our study. This might indicate that enjoyment and attitudes are more important for mental wellbeing, which in turn might suggest that focusing on improving positive attitudes and enjoyment of reading might be particularly beneficial in the classroom and across the whole school.
And this is where school libraries have a vital role to play. We know that school libraries are positively linked to personal and interpersonal outcomes such as feelings of success, resilience, independence and self-esteem. Positive attitudes and enjoyment of reading in particular have been consistently linked to school library use, both in the UK and internationally. Data from a large scale survey in the UK has shown that pupils who use the school library are more likely to enjoy reading, to read more books in a typical month and rate themselves as good readers. The data also showed that school library users think more positively about reading. They are more likely to see reading as fun and cool and less likely to agree that they only read when they have to. Some evidence also suggests that the impact of school libraries might be particularly important for engaging boys in reading.
At a time when children and young people are facing a multitude of pressures at school, at home and in their social lives, it is vital that we do everything we can to help them develop the resilience they need to cope with life’s challenges — something that we now know a love of reading and writing can help with. And school libraries can play a central part in this.