Children from poorer backgrounds ‘must not be deprived of life rich in reading’

Reading with children must be seen as essential rather than “something which is nice to have in life” top authors said as they called on politicians to commit to long-term national investment to ensure low-income families get the support they need.

War Horse writer Sir Michael Morpurgo has, along with all the children’s laureates of the past 25 years, written to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to demand sustained funding towards books and reading for the under-sevens to help underscore the importance of families reading together.

Sir Michael cites results of a survey by BookTrust, of which he is president, that while 95% of parents with children under seven know reading is important, less than half (42%) of children of that age have a bedtime story.

Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho is one of the signatories to the letter (David Bebber/PA)
Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho is one of the signatories to the letter (David Bebber/PA)

Adding another finding that only half of children aged between one and two from low-income families are read to daily, he said: “It can come as little surprise that the number of children starting school needing speech and language support has risen by a fifth since 2017”.

The letter, whose signatories include current children’s laureate Joseph Coelho, illustrator Sir Quentin Blake and Tracy Beaker writer Dame Jacqueline Wilson, stated that reading together “lays down the best foundations for life”.

Acknowledging that the cost-of-living crisis is “tipping more families into poverty”, the letter said it is now “vital to recognise that children who read regularly are more likely to overcome disadvantage”.

The letter stated: “Reading with children may sound like something which is nice to have in life, rather than something which is essential, but nothing could be further from the truth.

“There is overwhelming evidence that children who are read to do better across a wide range of outcomes.

“Children from low-income families who do well across the curriculum at the end of primary school are twice as likely to have been read to early on.”

Sir Michael said it is “not right that children from poorer backgrounds are deprived of a life that is rich in reading”, calling for better access to books and activities that inspire an interest in reading as well as support from all those who work with young children, including health visitors, librarians, family support workers and early years teachers.

Extending the benefits of reading to all families, irrespective of their circumstances and challenges “is simply the right thing for any government to do”, the letter said.

Diana Gerald, BookTrust chief executive, said: “Children who missed out on critical development opportunities during the pandemic have fallen behind in terms of language development, literacy and communication skills.

“Their social and emotional wellbeing has been affected. There is significant risk their attainment at school and their long-term life chances will suffer.

“We know that reading can help address these issues, and we want our ‘Reading Together’ campaign to start the conversation around how we can transform children’s lives because there has never been a more urgent time for us to inspire a new generation of children on their reading journeys.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are committed to raising literacy standards for children across England, including for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Our Little Moments Together campaign provides free resources and advice for parents to support their children’s early development helping schools and parents in creating a positive culture of reading.

“Our reforms – including the focus on phonics and our £67 million English Hubs Programme – are also helping to ensure more children leave primary school with a secure grasp of reading and writing and are clearly having a positive impact as primary aged children came fourth of the participating 43 countries in the 2021 Progress in International Literacy Study – making them the best in the western world at reading.”