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What stops teens reading books for pleasure?

Last updated: 22 May 2024

Research shows that teenage reading is at an all-time low (Cole et al., 2022). We know that reading regularly can support academic attainment, social skills, empathy, identity development, and wellbeing. Therefore, it is important to understand why many teens are not reading books for pleasure, so we can develop tools and strategies to help them overcome those barriers and ensure they are not missing out on the many benefits of reading.

As part of the Young People's Reading Project(this link will open in a new window), we interviewed 45 teenagers (13–14 year olds) about their reading habits. We asked them to reflect on the things that might make it harder for them or their peers to read books for pleasure. From these interviews, we identified six factors which can act as barriers to teenagers' reading for pleasure.

Lack of reliable access

Having access to reading materials in a preferred format is fundamental to reading for pleasure (Merga, 2015). However, many teens reported that they didn't have access to books that were interesting, relevant, or aligned with their skill levels either in school or at home.

Some teens said they had outgrown the books they had at home or that their school library wasn't regularly updated with new and interesting reading material. For some, when they did have access to lots of books, they found it difficult to know how to choose one that matched their needs.

Mismatch between needs and provision

Teens have many different reading needs, goals, skills, and interests. However, many teens reported that the books that were available often did not align with these personal factors.

For example, some teenagers said that the books they read in class did not align with their own interests, or that they were too challenging to read. Others felt that not having choice over the books they read in school took away their autonomy. Some also noted that the messages they receive in school encourage them to read for attainment, yet they had other goals for reading such as learning about others, escapism, career development, or supporting their mental health, which were not prioritised in school.

These mismatched needs were linked to negative attitudes towards reading and less motivation to read for pleasure in their free time.

Social factors

During the teenage years, peer relationships, social comparison, a sense of belonging, and acceptance are increasingly important. This means that social factors might play a heightened role in teens willingness to read for pleasure.

Some teens said that films and TV often portray reading as an antisocial, solitary activity and that this creates a perception that it is uncool. Because many teens are seeking a sense of acceptance, engaging in an activity which might be judged negatively by others can be demotivating.

However, some teens 'owned' this label, saying that they were proud readers despite the 'uncool' stereotype! Others said they thought this stereotype was outdated, and that there were lots of ways to be a 'social reader' (for example, being part of a book group, or talking about reading with friends).

Negative experiences with reading in school

A significant proportion of teens' reading experiences take place in school where, some teens reported, they feel under pressure to read, either because of reading targets or because they are told to read at particular times. Others said that they read so much during the school day that reading becomes associated with schoolwork, meaning they don't want to read in their free time.

When reading experiences are negative, this can have a knock-on effect on teenagers' attitudes towards reading more generally.

Negative feelings

Some teens said that they associated reading with negative feelings such as boredom, frustration, disappointment, anger, and self-criticism, especially from reading books that were too challenging. When reading leads to negative feelings, this can lead to an overall negative perception of reading and a declining motivation to read for pleasure.

Time and competing activities

Many teens reported having less time to read for pleasure than when they were younger. This was due to things like: more homework, spending more time with friends, extra-curricular activities, part-time jobs, and chores. Lots of teens said they thought reading was a time-consuming activity and that many Young Adult books are much longer than books for children, meaning it is hard to fit reading into their busy schedules.

Some also said that when they did have free time, they preferred spending it on activities which required less brain power (e.g., watching TV or YouTube), or which connected them with others (e.g., hanging out with friends, social media). Some said they read much more in the summer holidays, when the demands of school are reduced, and they have more energy to dedicate to reading.

Tackling the barrier to teen reading

There are many reasons why it might be hard for teens to keep reading. Different young people will also be affected more or less by different factors. Talking to your pupils about the specific barriers they face is a great place to start in working out how to overcome them.

Read more about how teens say we can support them to read books for pleasure.