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Books lose out to computer games

JK Rowling was hailed as having reintroduced reading to children as fun with her boy wizard books. But a survey shows that books are losing their hold. Elizabeth Buie reports.Scottish pupils are less enthusiastic about reading and have lost confidence in their reading ability in the past five years, according to the international reading study published last week.

One parents' leader has blamed declining interest in the Harry Potter books. Judith Gillespie, development manager for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, says Harry Potter mania in Scotland and England was responsible for higher scores in reading for pleasure in the previous Progress in Reading Literacy Study. But since 2001, interest in the boy wizard has waned, she claims, and, with it, children's enthusiasm for books. "There was a huge surge in reading for enjoyment when the first survey was done," she said.

"JK Rowling was generally hailed as having reintroduced reading for children as a fun activity. That generation of Potter 'must haves' has grown up. It is still there, but does not have the impact it had with the generation who grew up with him."

Scottish scores for the reading achievement of P5 pupils have remained stable since the first report from PIRLS, based on research carried out in 2001. The latest report was based on a 2006 survey.

Results in England dipped badly, however. Education Secretary Ed Balls blamed middle-class parents for allowing their children to spend too much time playing computer games, rather than encouraging reading books for pleasure.

"Most of them have their own TVs and mobiles, and 37 per cent of our 10-year-olds are playing computer games for three hours or more a day - more than in most countries in the study," he said

The tone has been less accusatory in Scotland, where the results are above the international average. But they have been overtaken by a group of high-achievers, such as Russia and Singapore, who have made leaps and bounds in five years.

The most recent PIRLS survey showed that Scotland had fallen from 14th to 26th; Russia, which matched it last time, was top of the overall achievement table.

Of the OECD participants in the survey, Scotland had the third-widest gap between high and low achievers.

Larry Flanagan, education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland and an English teacher, said that, while he was not complacent about Scotland's results, he was reassured that it had maintained a fairly healthy position overall. "The survey showed that our able pupils are among the highest performers, but there is a large discrepancy between the most and the least able," he said.

Mr Flanagan said one of the most important messages that came out of the final report on the 10-year West Dunbartonshire literacy report (TESS, November 23) was the emphasis it put on changing attitudes to reading. "If we are going to promote reading per se, we have to get kids to become more involved in reading," he said.

Some literacy programmes used in England had been formulaic, with emphasis on the literacy hour in primary, he added. But this had failed to encourage parental involvement.

The analysts at the National Foundation for Educational Research, who carried out the survey in Scotland and England, said it appeared that lower achievement among the better readers had contributed most to England's overall fall, rather than the small increase in the proportion of weaker readers. There had been significant increases in the proportion of English 10-year-olds with the "least positive" attitudes to reading. They very seldom read stories or novels outside school.

In Scotland, as in the majority of countries, girls continued to outperform boys. Results showed that girls spent, on average, less time reading on the internet than boys.

There has also been a significant increase between 2001 and 2006, from 8 per cent to 11 per cent of Scottish pupils who report never, or almost never, reading for information outside school.

The findings

Scottish teachers estimated that 27 per cent of their teaching time was spent on language work (30 per cent internationally) and 16 per cent on reading (20 per cent). They spent an average of 2.5 hours a week on formal reading instruction - same as the international average.

Half of Scottish pupils were in classes where teachers taught reading daily (56 per cent internationally).

There was no obvious relationship between frequency of reading teaching and achievement in PIRLS. A more important determinant was how often pupils read on their own.

Scottish pupils were more likely than pupils internationally to be given daily chances to read on their own.

In Scotland, the highest proportions of pupils were in classes where teachers used assessment: to adapt instruction (98 per cent); to inform parents of progress (97 per cent); and identify pupils needing remedial instruction (100 per cent). These were higher in Scotland than internationally (91 per cent, 92 per cent and 91 per cent respectively).

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