Press release

Scottish pupils lose top spot for reading comprehension

Published on 27 February 2020

Study examines the reading habits of more than 1 million young people; Scottish pupils have the second highest level of reading comprehension among home nations; David Walliams, Jeff Kinney, and Roderick Hunt amongst most-read authors

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The largest literacy study ever conducted in the UK and Ireland has shown that Scottish pupils no longer have the best level of reading comprehension among the home nations.

The What Kids Are Reading Report 2020, written by the University of Dundee’s Professor Keith Topping for reading practice and assessment provider Renaissance UK, showed that Scottish youngsters have slipped behind Northern Ireland and have come joint second in terms of level of reading comprehension, alongside England.

Despite this, Scottish pupils have climbed from bottom of the table on reading more difficult books to second place. In response to the research, Renaissance has called on teachers and librarians to ensure pupils are reading books of an appropriate level to challenge pupils and enable them to progress in their literacy skills.

The study analysed the reading habits of 46,239 Scottish pupils as well as a further 1.1 million young people across the UK and Ireland using Renaissance’s data. For the first time, it also features attitudinal data provided by the National Literacy Trust from their Annual Literacy Survey.

The study analysed the difficulty of the books children were reading and the level of pupils’ comprehension. The report found reading for pleasure is key to children’s literacy success. It also reveals the most popular books and authors among the UK and Ireland’s school children.

The in-depth report underlined the importance of 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 popular, often had poorer comprehension by children.

Pupils who read daily are nearly three times as likely to read above the expected level compared with their peers who don’t read as frequently. Conversely, those pupils are twice as likely to read below the average expected for their age compared with their peers who read daily.

Professor Topping said, “Reading for pleasure is a vital component to literacy success but it is also important to encourage pupils to read more often and to pick books of appropriate reading difficulty for their age.

“The great news is that pupils’ favourite books tend to be of appropriate reading difficulty. It is important that teachers and librarians instil a love of reading in schools by encouraging lively classroom discussions with children about their favourite authors and titles. They should also be on hand to advise on books with appropriate challenge bespoke to the child’s interests. Parents can also play a role by encouraging children to read at home on a daily basis.” 

What Kids Are Reading 2020 summarises the efforts of 1,135,860 UK and Irish pupils who read 23,660,983 books in 5,339 schools.

Children in primary and secondary school were found to be reading slightly more than last year, with the average pupil reading 240,599 words, a 1% increase from the previous year. While there is little to separate boys and girls in terms of their reading attainment, boys tend to prefer non-fiction, especially in secondary schools. Non-fiction books were not read or understood by either gender as well as fiction.

The report recommends that teachers and librarians encourage peer discussion on favourite books, that a diversity of choice of books be on offer and that pupils be encouraged to read books of appropriate reading difficulty for their age and that pupils read daily.

Renaissance is the world’s largest online assessment provider and its software gives schools an accurate picture of each individual pupil's ability, enabling teachers to tailor instruction and personalise practice to raise standards accordingly.

Renaissance Director of Professional Services James Bell said, “Literacy is key to a successful education and it is more important now than ever that our children are equipped with the reading skills they will need for educational attainment and for life.

“At Renaissance, we have long advocated the need for daily reading time to help foster a love of reading, which is greatly aided when children are reading books of appropriate difficulty. The inclusion of attitudinal data for the first time further highlights the benefits of reading for pleasure, which we should all encourage.”

Favourite books and authors

The 2020 What Kids Are Reading Report also found that:

  • J.K Rowling dominates the favourite books within primary schools with her Harry Potter titles taking the top 7 spots. Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban comes out on top, with Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone second, and Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire third.

In secondary schools, J.K Rowling has disappeared from the list as Rick Riordan takes the top spot with The Blood of Olympus. Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One comes second followed by Alex Bell’s Frozen Charlotte at third. 

In addition to measuring the books that young people most enjoyed, the study examines their most read books over the last academic year. It found that:

  • Jeff Kinney remains the most widely chosen and read author overall for the seventh year running, followed by David Walliams and then Roderick Hunt. Classic authors like Roald Dahl, Julia Donaldson and J.K Rowling also feature in the top 10.
  • Jeff Kinney remains the most popular author among primary school pupils by taking seven of the top ten most chosen and read books, with David Walliams taking two.
  • Jeff Kinney and David Walliams were the only two authors in the top ten most popular books list in primary schools. 
  • For secondary school pupils, the most read books are headed by Jeff Kinney, followed by David Walliams and then R. J. Palacio. David Walliams’ book Gangsta Granny has remained at the top as the most widely-chosen and read book – with Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid coming second. However, Jeff Kinney’s books make up 6 of the top 10.

Grant Hill

Press Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768
Story category Research