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Reading reluctance in secondary schools is a “growing problem”, teachers warn

8 March 2023 - Seven in ten secondary school teachers (71%) think there has been an increase in ‘reluctant readers’ over the past three years, according to a new study. Eight in ten (82%) teachers also say that the popularity of social media among teenagers has had a hugely negative effect on students’ willingness to read outside school. 

‘Reluctant readers’ are defined as those who are capable of reading but who, for a variety of reasons, need to be cajoled into picking up a book. Four-fifths of teachers (81%) agree that if students can’t read at the expected level for their age, they won’t be fully able to access the curriculum and that this will ultimately impede their performance at GCSE.

GL Assessment, who commissioned the research, explains that secondary students with reading skills that are ‘average’ or ‘just below average’ in the national cohort represent almost half (49%) of a typical year group*. While some of these students will be able to access the curriculum, there are others who will struggle to comprehend all they are reading. GL Assessment’s research also found that two-thirds (67%) of teachers say that reading progress tends to stall among this particular group of students at Key Stage 3, when children are aged between 11 and 14.

Nine in ten (89%) teachers think it is essential for secondary school students to learn to read for enjoyment. Yet almost the same number - 88% - think that social media distracts children from reading or getting into books.

Teachers are universally sceptical that their teenage students are doing much reading at all outside of school hours. Nine in ten (89%) teachers think that most children read for less than 15 minutes daily outside of school. Four in ten (40%) believe the children they teach spend no time at all reading. Eighty-five per cent (85%) would like their teenage students to be reading for up to an hour each day after the school day has come to an end. 

Professor Jessie Ricketts from the Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London, says: “The evidence shows that reading behaviour (how much reading is going on) feeds into attainment and vice versa, such that there is a kind of virtuous circle with those who read often reading well. However, you need a certain level of attainment to enter into this virtuous circle. Proficiency always comes first, and we know that many secondary students do not have the kind of proficiency that they need to enjoy and benefit from reading. 

“The jump from primary to secondary school also means teachers expect students to have much higher levels of comprehension to cope with the curriculum – but this doesn’t always transpire. When helping students who need support with their reading, it is important to identify the nature of their reading needs, for instance it might be to do with reading words, or comprehension, or both. This will always be crucial for ensuring that any help and interventions are effective.”

Crispin Chatterton, Director of Education at GL Assessment, adds: “Boosting the reading ability of a student group whose reading may seem superficially fine, but who are actually ‘invisible but struggling’, would significantly improve their academic performance across all subjects. Our study highlights that teachers recognise that reading reluctance is a growing problem and demonstrates the importance of having access to data that can quickly flag those students whose progress is being affected.” 
The findings show that teachers think that a third (33%) of boys and 15% of girls consider being asked to read as a ‘punishment’. Less than a fifth of teachers (17%) think boys see reading as something that’s ‘fun’, and over half (53%) say boys will always choose to read an easy book over a harder one. The report also suggests that there a growing number of girls who are becoming reluctant readers too. Teachers think just a quarter (24%) of their female students now see reading as an enjoyable pastime.

However, the findings also showed that teachers think there is a gender split when it comes to students making the connection between reading ability and school performance. Nearly half (45%) of teachers say boys don’t make the connection between reading ability and school performance – only 16% think they do. These figures are reversed for girls where 43% of teachers think that girls do make the link between reading ability and school performance with less than a fifth (18%) thinking that they don’t.

To try and help combat the problem, over a half (56%) of teachers say that their school has introduced additional reading time to help and encourage students with comprehension. Two-fifths (39%) say that their secondary school has also introduced reading aloud sessions.

Teachers think that they need more training to help them overcome the challenges they are facing.

Three-fifths of respondents (59%) think teachers need more training themselves to understand the link between oracy and reading. A similar proportion (61%) feel there needs to be more training in how to develop students’ reading and vocabulary skills.

Two thirds (65%) of the 539 secondary school teachers interviewed by YouGov say that reading is a strategic priority for their school, but there is less consensus over responsibility for delivery. Almost half (47%) of respondents say responsibility for reading doesn’t automatically rest with English departments in their school, while similar numbers (44%) say it does. 

Notwithstanding that, most teachers believe that targeted interventions are helping struggling readers and that assessment plays a crucial role. Over half of teachers (55%) think their school’s reading interventions are improving student outcomes. And two-thirds (65%) of teachers say their school is using reading assessment data to help identify barriers to learning. 
Beth Morrish, Director of Secondary Literacy and Lead for Professional Learning at Meridian Trust, a multi academy trust which runs 31 schools, says: “Very few secondary teachers doubt the importance of reading when it comes to accessing the curriculum. But we can’t expect every teacher to develop a different intervention for every one of their students. This is about developing best practice that supports a range of students with different abilities.”

More information on the research and advice from secondary schools and literacy experts about how to identify and support reluctant readers is available on GL Assessment’s dedicated website:




Notes to Editors

GL Assessment commissioned YouGov to survey a representative sample of 539 secondary school teachers in England, Scotland and Wales online. Fieldwork was undertaken between 14-23 November 2022. 
*Source: GL Assessment’s standardised assessments place students on a scale based on a ‘normal’ distribution of scores that would be expected within the population. This scale is divided into nine stanine scores on a scale of 1 (low) to 9 (high). 49% of students in GL Assessment’s New Group Reading Test standardised sample sit in stanines 3, 4 and 5.

About GL Assessment

GL Assessment is the largest provider of formative assessments to UK schools. It specialises in assessments that help to reveal students’ potential, track their progress, and identify any barriers to learning they might have. www.gl-assessment.co.uk

For more information

Mark Cooper, Gerard Kelly & Partners, 0203 763 2073

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