Press release

Major study reveals Scottish pupils' pandemic reading habits

Published on 28 April 2021

• Scottish pupils' reading skills improved over lockdown • Reading helped improve wellbeing during pandemic

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Children in Scotland saw both an improvement in their reading skills and a marked uplift in reading enjoyment levels during the pandemic., according to the annual ‘What Kids Are Reading’ report analysed by the University of Dundee’s Professor Keith Topping.

The study by learning and assessment provider Renaissance Learning analysed the reading habits of more than 1.1 million pupils across the UK and the Republic of Ireland, including 46,722 Scottish youngsters. It showed readings skills improved over lockdown periods, with many children picking up longer books of greater difficulty.

The report also contains findings from a National Literacy Trust survey of 4,141 pupils across the UK which show that three in five children said reading made them feel better during lockdown. In addition, 32% also said reading helped them when they felt sad because they could not see friends or family.

While the number of books read overall dropped by 17% compared to the previous year, during school closures reading levels increased. And when they read, children were inclined to pick up more challenging books for their age. Primary school children and those up to Year 7, in particular, improved on their reading levels by reading more demanding texts.

At Scottish primary level and particularly Year 1, pupils were reading a larger variety of titles compared to their English counterparts. Book reading difficulty in Year 2 was at its highest for Scottish children, who were reading books almost two years ahead of their chronological age.

The data on reading habits and activity was complemented by responses from the National Literacy Trust’s Annual Literacy Survey, which found that reading for pleasure dipped at the beginning of 2020, and recorded its lowest level of self-reported reading enjoyment since 2005 (48% of children).

However, the first lockdown also signalled a marked change in this downward trend. During school closures many more pupils began to enjoy reading again with 56% of young people saying they enjoyed reading either very much (24%) or quite a lot (32%). When it comes to reading choices during Covid-19, almost seven in ten children said they had read more fiction during lockdown, with most turning to adventure stories that was by far the most popular fiction genre.

Professor Topping, from the University’s School of Education and Social Work, said, “During the lockdown overall, pupils were tending to read longer books of greater difficulty and with greater comprehension. Having more time to read gave children the chance to immerse themselves in literature and schools should encourage more reading time now that they are open again.

“It is great to see that primary age children are reading more difficult books and this should be reflected at secondary school age where book difficulty this year plateaued. Secondary schools need to encourage their pupils to attack more difficult books.”

During the first lockdown, ‘One of Us is Lying’ by Karen M McManus and ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ by J.K Rowling topped the leader boards of the most favourite books by secondary and primary school pupils respectively.

David Walliams and Julia Donaldson became even more popular. J. K. Rowling made a very substantial re-appearance with 36 mentions as more primary school pupils picked up the Harry Potter series again, while Roald Dahl sustained his popularity. Suzanne Collins showed an increase in popularity. However, Jeff Kinney declined in popularity and Roderick Hunt almost disappeared altogether.

This past year also saw more children discover new authors. According to National Literacy Trust data, almost one in two pupils (46%) said they had read new books, while one in seven said they had turned to a book they had read before.

One newcomer to the WKAR rankings is author Pamela Butchart, a Dundee graduate who was also awarded an Honorary Degree from the University in recognition of her literary achievements. Pamela’s book, ‘My Headteacher is a Vampire Rat’, was voted 9th in the Favourite Books within Primary Schools During First Lockdown category.

Pamela said, “It is wonderful to see that so many children have been choosing to read for pleasure during the lockdown period. And I’m delighted to discover that ‘My Head Teacher is A Vampire Rat’ has been a favourite!

“It is vital that as lockdown eases we continue to foster a culture of reading for pleasure among children by supporting public libraries and providing a library in every school so that all children can access books equally and for free.”

From 2020 to 2021 there was little change in favourite authors overall, Jeff Kinney, David Walliams and Roald Dahl remained popular. J. K. Rowling re-appeared in the 2021 overall list, Jill Murphy was a new entrant, and Roderick Hunt declined in popularity.

Renaissance Director John Moore said, “Lockdown has been difficult for many children, especially when schools were closed and they could not access school libraries or see their friends. Knowing that reading really helped younger children to feel better throughout the pandemic is very encouraging. It’s promising to see that when pupils had a choice of books to hand many chose a more challenging book, and one that perhaps allows for more escapism.”

A copy of the full report can be found at

Notes to editors

The What Kids Are Reading report summarises the reading habits from 1,146,353 pupils (1% more than last year) who read 19,662,147 books using data from Renaissance’s Accelerated Reader software, Star – the Renaissance computer-based norm-referenced reading test, based on the national curriculum – and myON.

The National Literacy Trust segment of the report, provided by Dr Christina Clark, Head of Research, and Irene Picton, Research Manager, is based on a survey of 58,346 pupils aged 9 to 18 in early 2020 and 4,141 pupils aged 9 to 18 in May-June 2020.


Grant Hill

Senior Public Affairs Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768
Story category Research