Scottish pupils joint best in reading comprehension in the UK according to major survey

The largest literacy study ever conducted in the UK and Ireland has shown that Scottish pupils had the joint greatest level of reading comprehension amongst the home nations, alongside Northern Ireland.

The annual What Kids are Reading Report, analysed by the University of Dundee’s Professor Keith Topping, was written using data compiled by literacy and assessment provider Renaissance UK. The study analysed the reading habits of 1,057,720 pupils across the UK and Ireland, including 29,524 in Scotland.

Despite Scottish pupils having the highest comprehension levels, on average they are reading the least difficult books. As this is a common theme across all nations, Renaissance has called on teachers and librarians to ensure pupils are reading books that pose an appropriate challenge to help develop literacy skills.

Professor Topping said, “This report gets under the skin of children’s reading habits in the UK, and the results are eye-opening. It’s great to see that Scottish pupils are at the top of the table in reading comprehension. We can now see that balancing the three factors of appropriate reading challenge, reading practice, and reading motivation is fundamental for children’s reading progress.

“Although important, instilling reading culture in schools isn’t just about dedicated reading time. Teachers and librarians should also encourage lively classroom discussion about fiction, with children sharing favourite authors and titles. They should also be on hand to advise on books with appropriate challenge bespoke to the child’s interests. And of course, it is important to encourage children to read outside of school, so letting them take books home is crucial.”

The study analysed the difficulty of the books children were reading and the level of pupils’ comprehension and found a clear formula for literacy success – reading practice, reading for pleasure, and appropriate challenge of books. It also reveals the most popular books and authors among the UK’s school children.

The amount of estimated engaged reading time was found to have a direct bearing on attainment of students across the board. The more time spent on reading practice, the better the student performed, regardless of ability or year group.

In addition, the report underlined the importance of reading motivation and reading for pleasure. Pupils’ favourite books were read with a better comprehension, often in spite of the text being of greater difficulty. In addition, less difficult texts which were not as favoured sometimes had poorer comprehension by children.

Reading time also has a direct bearing on vocabulary expansion. From the beginning of primary school to the end of secondary school, students with an average daily reading time of 30+ minutes are projected to encounter 13.7 million words. At the end of secondary school, their peers who averaged less than 15 minutes of reading per day are likely to be exposed to only 1.5 million words. Children who read 15–29 minutes per day, will encounter an average of 5.7 million words – less than half of the high-reading group but nearly four times that of the low-reading group.

Some researchers estimate students learn one new word of vocabulary for every thousand words read.Using this ratio, a student who reads only 1.5 million words would learn only 1,500 new vocabulary words from reading, while a student who reads 13.7 million words would learn 13,700 new vocabulary terms – more than nine times the amount of vocabulary growth.

Children in primary and secondary school were found to be reading markedly more than last year, particularly primary pupils. While there is little to separate boys and girls in terms of their reading attainment, boys tend to prefer non-fiction, especially in secondary school and in turn, the non-fiction favoured books tend to be male-dominated books such as sports biographies.

The report also found that children should read books with appropriate challenge where possible. If reading is done at a level below the threshold of difficulty which promotes reading growth, little or no growth in attainment is likely to occur. If reading is done at a level significantly above this threshold, the text will be too hard, and no or little growth in reading attainment occurs.

What Kids Are Reading shows that each of these factors, reading motivation, reading time, and appropriate challenge all come into play for literacy success of a child as none alone can be attributed to success. The authors recommend that teachers, librarians and parents should bear this in mind when recommending books for children.

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • teachers and librarians encouraging peer discussion on favourite books
  • ensuring a diversity of choice of books on offer
  • putting in place at least 15 minutes of dedicated reading time for children per day

Renaissance Director of Professional Services James Bell said, “Literacy is at the heart of every successful education. Reading is fundamental to a broad range of subjects. Children need to understand their exam paper they’re facing, whether that’s maths, science, or history.

“It’s great to see that Scottish pupils are reading books with greater understanding. However, they still have some way to go if they’re going to climb up the international rankings. This study shows that reading motivation, appropriate reading challenge and reading practice is the key to literacy success. We have to make sure that children are both challenged and charmed by the books they read.”