Illustration: Mia Nilsson.

New Swedish book on Reading Promotion

The downward trend for young people's reading comprehension and reading habits has hardly escaped anyone. Concerns about substandard literacy levels and declining reading habits have resulted in a call of action by numerous educational and other authorities, including the Swedish Arts Council.

The Swedish Arts Council has since the 1990s allocated funds to reading promotion projects. A series of successful projects has been carried out, but the challenges are still considerable. There is therefore reason to stop and reflect: what is the purpose of reading promotion, what are the strategies for promoting reading, and what do we know about the effects? On behalf of the Swedish Arts Council, I was given the opportunity to ponder on these questions, examine some of the research done in this field and take a close look at the many activities dedicated to motivating children and adults to become lifelong readers. Med läsning som mål: Om metoder och forskning på det läsfrämjande området – The target of reading. On methods and research in the field of reading promotion (The Swedish Arts Council 2015) describes and discusses strategies used in reading promotion programs and projects carried out by public libraries, adult education organizations, charities and other institutions engaged in reading promotion. The book is written for anyone who has an interest in reading promotion activities and reading literacy.


Reading motivation

With reference to Linda Gambrell, the essential factors for improving reading motivation among young people is identified as (1) the literature's and reading tasks perceived relevance to their own lives, (2) access to a wide range of reading materials, (3) a generous amount of time for reading, (4) opportunities to make choices about what they read, (5) opportunities to socially interact with others about the text they are reading, (6) opportunities to be successful with challenging texts and (7) incentives which reflect the value and importance of reading. Interestingly, after consulting a large research overview on reading instruction in Swedish primary School done on behalf of The Swedish National Agency for Education, one can conclude that reading instruction in Swedish primary School runs completely contrary to what researchers on reading motivation holds as most important for young people’s motivation to read. Along with numerous studies indicating that parents and the home environment is crucial for children’s reading habits and attitudes to reading, a picture emerges of reading in Sweden where the socio-cultural factors is to a very large extent allowed to determine who becomes a reader and who does not. In short, there are good reasons for engaging in reading promotion activities. There is also good reason for evaluating results.

Early Literacy

The reading promotion activities discussed in my book are sorted into six basic categories: early literacy, reading role models, reader’s advisory and booktalk, social reading, summer reading and strategies to make books available.

Promotion of early literacy development among young children includes Family literacy programs such as Bookstart, a book-gifting and parental awareness raising program applied in many countries, including Sweden. Bookstart is proven to have much impact on parents reading behavior and confidence in reading to their children. With reference to both theory and practice, book-gifting, home visits and other strategies are discussed, followed by a number of Swedish examples of reading promotion projects focusing on children at preschool. The role of reading in Swedish pre-school is discussed with reference to motivational factors such as relevance, availability, time, choice and interaction. The chapter ends in a brief discussion on the value of reading aloud to children.

Reading role models

It is a well-known fact that children and adults learn by imitating others. Making use of role models in the promotion of reading seems intuitively reasonable. A role model may be a person whose behavior one imitates, or a person whose values and beliefs one shares. Several research studies examine parents' reading habits effect on children's reading behavior. A number of studies suggest that the most important reading role models are to be found among parents, followed by friends and teachers at school.  Some studies have also identified reading role models among athletes. Many reading promotion programs and projects use different kinds of reading role models, including parents, friends and sport stars. In this chapter I also briefly discuss gender issues of reading and the so called reading gap between boys and girls. Several projects and campaigns are aimed at encouraging and supporting fathers to be reading role models for their children, often with the purpose of changing reading attitudes among boys. Male reading role models are an important part of reading promotion activities today.

Reader’s Advisory and Booktalk

The book also deals with activities to provide suggested reading and book presentations of various kinds. The specific form of library-service meant to suggest further reading is (particularly in the US) called Reader's Advisory. In direct forms of Reader's Advisory a librarian poses a series of questions to a user in order to make a non-judgmental inventory of the persons reading interests, and give tips and advices based on them. Booklists, book recommendations online and so on is often referred to as indirect Reader’s Advisory. Reader's Advisory belongs to the library’s basic functions, but is also used by commercial bookstores, in both direct and indirect forms.

Booktalk is one of the most common methods of promoting reading in Swedish public libraries. Simply put, a book talk is a talk given with the intent to convince someone to read a book. Booktalks can both convey enthusiasm for reading and help readers find books they like. Book talking has changed over time in terms of selection, pedagogics, and attitudes to the listener, objectives, implementation and expected results. For example, during the 1970s the book talks at Swedish libraries was often done with public education in mind, while in the 1990s the personal reading experience became more emphasized. Research indicates that books subject to booktalk increases significantly in circulation, but booktalks have no noticeable effect on reading attitudes. Booktalk at Swedish public libraries is usually about fiction. A Swedish survey indicates that about ninety percent of the booktalks at Swedish libraries are dedicated to literary fiction. It is a remarkably high figure considered what we know about boys' great interest in non-fiction.

Social Reading

There is a tendency within both research and practical reading promotion activities today to emphasize the social dimension of reading. Reading has traditionally not been perceived as a group activity, but for a generation where social interaction is constantly ongoing, reading also has to become social, it is argued. Young people get engaged with literature if they get opportunities to talk about it.

In a sense, reading is always social. All reading practice, from learning basic reading skills to advanced interpretation, is in many ways a social practice. All "reading habits" – including reading alone in the privacy of one’s home – is socially produced and presupposes a "social infrastructure" of reading. It has been pointed out that the notion of the lone, private reader, can in itself be regarded as a social construction that romanticize the individual and isolated writer or reader. Both the question how, what, and why we read is determined in a social context. Yet there is a common conception of reading as a solitary affair. The American sociologist Elizabeth Long has spoken of a "cultural hegemony of the solitary reader". A reader is often portrayed as someone who take part in a world that others do not take part in. However, the popularity of social reading activities such as reading groups, shared reading and online discussions indicates that the image of the isolated reader no longer dominates the culture of reading. An example of social reading in large scale is known as Mass Reading Events (MSE), such as book clubs on radio and television. Another example of MSE is the so called One Book, One Community (OBOC) programs – reading promotion initiatives designed to gather readers in a city, a region or even a whole nation around the same book.

The opportunities to share reading experiences or discuss reading with others are greater than ever. With "social reading" I understand communication about literature and reading experiences among readers. Such activity includes reading groups in both traditional and digital forms, literary discussions in forums and blogs, Mass Reading Events such as OBOC-programs and interactive forms of author visits.

Summer Reading

The term Summer Learning Loss refers to the well-known phenomenon of specific or general loss of knowledge over the course of summer vacation. Children tend specifically to lose ground in their reading during the summer vacation, and particularly children without reading opportunities at home. The phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “summer reading dip” or “summer reading setback”. Summer Reading Programs is often regarded as a means to mitigate such effects. Summer Reading Programs often follows a kind of read-and-report structure, where children are to read a certain number of books with some kind of reward in sight. Programs of this type have been labeled "incentive programs". In UK's Summer Reading Challenge, for example, children are to read at least six books during the summer and are subsequently rewarded for their efforts.

The research literature on Summer Reading Programs often examine in what degree such programs succeed in countering Summer Learning Loss. A large number of articles have been written on the subject. Researchers have, for example, pointed out that reading 4-5 books over the summer is enough to decisively counter the reading gap that arise during the summer holidays. A number of studies measure the impact of summer reading programs on students' school results. It has been pointed out that summer reading programs can play a significant role in bridging reading gaps and public libraries plays an important role in this.

Making books available

Strategies to make books available to readers range from providing easy read literature to designing library space. It includes services such as mobile libraries and other efforts to bring the library to readers rather than the other way around. There are many reasons for libraries to engage in such outreach activity. Strategies used include establishing small libraries in places outside the library building and its branches, such as cloakrooms, public laundries and even at indoor swimming pools. More traditional forms of alternative libraries include workplace libraries and mobile libraries such as book buses and book boats.

Strategies to make books available through digital media are also discussed within this framework. It is easy to see the potential of promoting reading with the expanded availability that comes with smartphones and tablets. It is equally easy to see a potential threat to reading in the very same technology.

Assumptions have been made about the reading promotion potential of e-books. According to a compilation of research on e-books' impact on reading engagement, it is too optimistic to assume that e-books would engage new readers who do not already read printed books. However, e-books, as well as printed books, are of course useful in reading promotion. Reading e-books and paper books is not a question of either / or. Not surprisingly, content seem to be a more important factor for young people’s reading motivation than the format in itself. The reading promotion potential of e-books lies in its availability: students seem to prefer e-books when they are offered a larger number of titles and the possibility to make choices.

Recommendations

On the basis of the findings in this report, the following general recommendations are suggested:

  • Start early (and continue). The importance of early literacy cannot be stressed enough and Family Literacy initiatives are recommended. Initiatives aimed at encouraging and informing about the importance of reading aloud is of particular priority. In particular, men are to be encouraged and engaged in reading aloud to their children.

  • Identify relevant target groups in order to close reading gaps.

  • Provide a wide range of reading materials. Access to a wide range of reading materials has positive effects on reading motivation. To provide a rich and varied reading material also communicates that reading is a valuable and rewarding activity.

  • Promote social reading. There is a connection between reading motivation and the opportunity to interact socially with texts. Social interaction involves talking with others about books, read together with others, borrow and share books with others, talk about books and share written text about books with others.

  • Make use of reading role models. Everyone, and particularly men, should be encouraged to be reading role models for their children. Promote activities that involve older children reading to younger ones. Such mentoring brings double benefits: younger children receive attention from older peers who strengthens their confidence by being role models.

  • Emphasize freedom of choice. Reading motivation is related to the ability to choose what to read. Note that the choice of what to read does not necessarily exclude certain goals in terms of how much to read.

  • Work on the basis of different target groups’ identified (reading) interests.

  • Opt for summer reading programs. Encourage cooperation between schools and public libraries. Emphasize the educational benefits to parents.

  • Formulate clear, achievable goals and evaluate.

Jonas Andersson

Jonas Andersson works with reading promotion at the Swedish Arts Council. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and is the author of a current book on methods and research in the field of reading promotion.

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