Combatting decline in reading: 'Check BookTok on a regular basis.'

Initiatives such as the Children's Books Week are supposed to get large numbers of children reading again. This is sorely needed, as the reading skills of young Dutch people have been on the decline for years. But according to literary scholar Jeroen Dera, students can also dramatically improve their language skills, as well as their critical thinking, by reading more. 'Reading skills are one of the greatest predictors of social success.'

If you want to stimulate young people to engage with books more, you have to show them why reading matters. This is apparent from motivation theories, in which 'relevance' plays a crucial role. But how do you get young people to experience this relevance? Jeroen Dera studies how secondary-school teachers explain the merits of reading to their pupils, and whether these explanations are in line with the pupils’ experience. “I want to know what a teacher says when pupils wonder why they should read at all,” explains Dera. “We also ask pupils why they think that they are taught literature, and we try and find out what they learn from it. This might help us to better understand what is going on.”

So what is actually going on? Over the last few generations, people have increasingly spent less of their free time reading. This development seems to be further exacerbated by the appearance of social media and smart phones. A worrisome development, says the researcher. “It also correlates with a decline in pupils’ school performance. They are losing the ability to read at an abstract level. Just getting the factual information out of a text is still OK, but reading really long texts, structuring information, thinking about what you read, these are things that many young people are no longer able to do.”

Students who never unpack their textbooks

Learning to read better mostly happens through reading a lot, and that is much easier if you actually enjoy reading. Unfortunately, pleasure in reading is precisely what seems to be lacking in the Netherlands. A 2018 international PISA study revealed that Dutch fifteen-year olds scored remarkably poorly on reading pleasure compared to their peers in other countries, and their reading performance displayed a downward spiral. One quarter of pupils even read so poorly that it affects their social functioning.

Jeroen Dera (foto: Dick van Aalst, Radboud Universiteit)
Jeroen Dera (foto: Dick van Aalst, Radboud Universiteit)

Among students too, poor reading skills are a growing problem, fears Dera. “Even at the Faculty of Arts, some students never unpack their textbooks: they prefer to get information from summaries and lectures. We’re caught in a consumption society in which even lecture notes can be sold and purchased. A growing number of young people only read when strictly necessary, and this is not without its dangers. After all, reading skills are one of the greatest predictors of social success. Plus, literacy is crucial for a healthy democracy. Certainly academics must be able to reflect critically on the information they absorb, and understand different perspectives on an issue.”

BookTok helps

But there is reason for hope. Booksellers are seeing a growing number of young readers in their shops these past months, a development for which they are indebted to BookTok and InstaBook: interest areas on social media where young people share book tips with one another. Dera follows these developments closely. “I check the BookTok videos on a regular basis. They can teach literary scholars like myself a lot about young people's reading behaviour. The beauty of it is that these are bottom-up initiatives: young people motivate each other to read, without interference from parents or teachers.”

The literary scholar recently conducted a small-scale study with his students on the effect of BookTok among 142 pupils at a school in the Achterhoek. The study showed that videos by popular 'BookTokkers' have a significant effect on the reading motivation of some pupils, the so-called 'book doubters'. Dera: “At one end of the spectrum, you have the book worms, who read enough and don't need any extra motivation. At the other end, you have book avoiders, who really dislike reading. They’re not going to be convinced by a few BookTok videos; they require a personal approach. But there is also a large group in the middle. Previous research by Cedric Stalpers has shown that approximately 40% of all young people are book doubters. Doubters are not by definition against reading; they just prefer to spend their time doing other things. Apparently, this group can be influenced by BookTok to become enthusiastic and start to read more.”

Bookcases on campus

At the university too, lecturers could devote more time to emphasising the importance of reading, says the researcher. “We often blame secondary schools for the decline in language skills, but if we believe that students should read and write better, we must also stimulate a culture of reading here. For example by offering a literate environment as a university: lecturers should communicate the importance of reading, also at the economics or medicine department, and books should be available and visible. After all, what is a university library with no, or hardly any, visible books? You could even make it a condition for study associations getting funding that they also offer a reading club.” Until such time, Dera is calling on students, lecturers, and staff members to at least share their book tips on social media.

Students and staff will soon share their favorite books via #RadboudReads on @radboud_uni Instagram and TikTok. Do you also want to recommend a book? Let us know via communicatie [at] (communicatie[at]ru[dot]nl) and you might be our next ‘bookfluencer’!

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Art & Culture, Media & Communication, Education, Language