Mental health hit as students’ literacy engagement declines

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Both literacy engagement and mental wellbeing decline as pupils move out of primary school and through their secondary education, new research has found. Pete Henshaw reports

Levels of literacy engagement and mental wellbeing decline as children transition from primary to secondary school, new research has warned.

The finding has come in a report from the National Literacy Trust (NLT) showing a link between children who are most engaged with writing and reading in their free time and better mental wellbeing.

The research is based on surveys of 49,047 UK school children aged from 8 to 18 and finds that those engaged with writing and reading are likely to feel happier.

The impact on mental health is also seemingly more significant for boys as those who are engaged with reading and writing have higher levels of wellbeing than girls who are engaged.

The research uses two measures:

  • A mental wellbeing index qualifies students’ responses to questions about life satisfaction, coping skills and self-belief on a scale of one to 10.
  • A literacy engagement score quantifies children’s responses to questions about how often they read and write outside school and how much they enjoy it.

Overall, the young people in the study reported an average mental wellbeing level of 7.25/10.

However, the report says that the young people who are most engaged with literacy had an average mental wellbeing score of 7.9. This compares to an average score of 6.6 for those who are least engaged. The research found that mental wellbeing levels rose steadily the more pupils engaged with reading and writing.

Furthermore, boys who are most engaged with literacy scored an average of 8.1 compared to the most engaged girls who scored 7.6.

However, the NLT is concerned that levels of literacy engagement decline as pupils move to secondary school. Research from the charity published last year found that only a third of teenage boys say they enjoy reading. While more than 72 per cent of boys aged eight to 11 said they enjoyed reading, this fell to just under 36 per cent for boys aged 14 to 16 (Boys’ love of reading disappears dramatically as they become teens, SecEd, June 2017: http://bit.ly/2P4Q7j7).

This echoes previous NLT research in 2016 showing that 73 per cent of key stage 2 children – boys and girls – say they enjoy reading compared to 40 per cent in key stage 4. Other NLT research findings from 2016 include that only one in five children are now writing something on a daily basis that is not for school – down from 27 per cent in 2014.

And just as reading engagement and enjoyment decline as pupils get older, this week’s report finds that there is a corresponding decline in mental wellbeing. Pupils aged 8 to 11 had higher mental wellbeing scores in the study than those aged 11 to 14 and 14 to 16. Those aged 16 to 18 had the lowest mental wellbeing scores of all.

The research advises that seeing writing as a useful skill for the future is the thing that was “most strongly related” with good mental wellbeing, followed by young people’s belief that they can succeed in writing and their “reading perseverance”.

The report states: “While writing interest was significantly associated with mental wellbeing, this wasn’t true for reading. This suggests that more children and young people agree that writing has a role to play in their future and the more they believe in their own ability to overcome problems they might encounter when writing and reading, the higher they score in terms of their mental wellbeing.”

It adds: “How good children and young people perceive themselves as writers and how often they write something in their free time were also predictive of their general mental wellbeing. So, the more positive children and young people feel about reading and writing, and the more they enjoy reading and writing, the higher their scores on our mental wellbeing index.”

As a result of the research report, the NLT has worked with children’s mental health charity, Place2Be, to develop a series of free wellbeing-inspired teaching resources for primary and secondary schools, including book lists and assembly plans.

It has also created a series of top tips and activity ideas to help parents use reading and writing to support their child’s mental wellbeing.

Jonathan Douglas, director of the NLT, said: “Children and young people today face a multitude of pressures at school, at home and in their social lives. It is imperative that we do everything we can to enable our children to develop the resilience they need to cope with life’s challenges – and our latest research shows that the joys of reading and writing can be hugely beneficial. Not only does a love of reading and writing enable children to flourish at school, but we now also know it can play a vital role in supporting children to lead happy and healthy lives.”

Commenting on the report’s findings, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “The importance of reading for pleasure is well understood. Schools devote time to this, to allow pupils to become lost in a good book, as the saying goes. But this time is in danger of getting lost now, too.

“Changes to the curriculum and higher stakes tests and exams mean that reading for pleasure can be squeezed out of the school day. This disadvantages low-income families the most, because school is a point of free access to books and often those children who would benefit the most from reading for pleasure don’t have that many books at home to choose from.

“There are few more important tasks for schools and families than teaching children to read. It is the key that unlocks the door to a world of opportunity, information and even adventure. Learning the technical skills of reading is obviously essential, but there is so much more to learning to read than simply decoding symbols on a page. We want children who not only can read, but want to read, and actively choose to do so.”


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