Troubling Trends in Reading Attitudes: A Q&A with Martin Hooper, Senior Researcher

Image of dad and small children reading togetherReading is essential to the way people work, live, and learn. From street signs to novels to the news, we count on reading to keep us informed, entertained, and connected. But over the last 20 years, as we’ve ushered in the digital era, the ways in which we consume information have shifted dramatically.

AIR Senior Researcher Martin Hooper analyzes contexts for learning through large-scale assessment data. We spoke with him about his recent publications highlighting trends in literacy attitudes and practices, including the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). He also discussed how attitudes toward reading have shifted since 2001, in the U.S. and abroad; the implications of these attitude shifts; and how adults can promote reading in children.

Q: What is the PIRLS, and what were your major findings in your analysis of PIRLS attitudinal data?

Hooper: PIRLS is overseen by the IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) and provides an international measure of the reading achievement of fourth graders. It also asks fourth graders and their parents to report their attitudes toward reading—how much students and parents like reading. Because these data span from 2001 to 2016, and across 18 countries, we’re able to see how results change over time and vary internationally.

The most striking trend was an overall decline in student attitudes toward reading, which occurred in 13 out of 18 countries. Interestingly, the U.S. was one of the notable exceptions to this trend—our students’ attitudes saw no significant change. It’s also worth noting that the trend held for parents’ attitudes as well—their attitudes also declined in most countries.

Q: Why do attitudes toward reading matter? What are the benefits associated with reading?

Hooper: Reading attitudes are important because individuals with positive attitudes toward reading tend to read more and be more competent readers. Children reading more is related to vocabulary growth and positive brain development. In adults, frequent reading has been linked to improved well-being, including better mental and cognitive health. Also, throughout life, reading is one of the primary ways in which we learn, so being a competent reader is key to academic and career success.

Q: What can parents, teachers, and policymakers do to encourage reading?

"With the coronavirus, a lot of us have been given another opportunity to teach our children as we attempt to homeschool them. As we practice social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, parents and children are spending way more time together than usual. This is an opportunity to for parents to read with kids and instill positive attitudes toward reading and good reading habits." 

Hooper: As parents, we are our children’s first teachers, and as a separate AIR-IEA study revealed, children tend to share their parents’ positive reading attitudes and behaviors. Letting children choose their own books and reading materials is important—this helps them feel empowered and fosters positive reading attitudes. Another good strategy for instilling positive attitudes is to make reading a social activity—for example, by discussing what they are reading with them or encouraging them to discuss their reading with their friends over video conferencing (e.g., FaceTime, Zoom, Skype).

As for policymakers, they should take note of these falling trends in reading attitudes. Curricula may need to be reevaluated to promote positive attitudes toward reading. Since the results show that this attitude decline involves not just students but also parents, policymakers should consider widespread campaigns and programs that promote reading attitudes among entire families.