Strong readers who had higher scores on the PISA reading tests also read on screens at home, but they tended to use their devices to gather information, such as reading the news or browsing the Internet for schoolwork. When these strong readers wanted to read a book, they read in paper format or balanced their reading time between paper and digital devices.
Every three years, when 600,000 students around the world take the PISA test, they fill out surveys about their families and their reading habits. OECD researchers compared these survey responses to test scores and observed interesting correlations between books at home, reading on paper and a preference for reading achievement. Report, “Does the Digital World Open a Widening Divide in Access to Print Books?” Published on July 12, 2022.
In the United States, 31 percent of 15-year-olds say they never or rarely read books, compared to 35 percent worldwide. Meanwhile, 35 percent of American students said they primarily read paper books, roughly matching the international average of 36 percent. Another 16 percent of Americans said they read books more often on screens, and 18 percent responded that they read books equally on paper and on screens.
Digital books have become extremely popular among students in some parts of Asia, but students who read paper books are still outnumbered even in cultures where digital reading is common. More than 40 percent of students in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand report reading books more often on digital devices. Yet in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Taiwan, students who read books mostly on paper or in both formats scored higher than those who primarily read digital books. Thailand and Indonesia were both exceptions; Digital readers have done well. Hong Kong and Taiwan are two of the highest performing education systems in the world and even after adjusting for students’ socioeconomic status, the advantage of reading paper remains pronounced.
According to an OECD survey, teenagers around the world are rapidly falling away from reading. Fifteen-year-olds are reading less for leisure and less fiction books. The number of students who consider reading a “waste of time” increased by more than 5 percentage points. At the same time, reading performance across the world, which had been slowly improving until 2012, declined between 2012 and 2018. Across OECD countries who participated in both assessments, reading performance returned to 2006 levels.
OECD researchers wonder whether the presence of books in the home still matters in the digital age. In the student survey, students were told that each meter typically contained 40 books and were asked to estimate the number of books in their home. Both rich and poor students alike reported fewer books at home over the past 18 years, but the book gap between the two was consistently larger, with rich students living with twice as many books as poor students.
The effect of books at home is a bit like the chicken-egg puzzle. The OECD found that students who had more books at home reported that they enjoyed reading more. Logically, students who are surrounded by physical books may feel more encouraged by their families and motivated to read. But it may be that students who love reading get lots of books as gifts or bring home more books from the library. It’s also possible that both are simultaneously true in a virtuous two-way spiral: more books in the home motivate children to read And Avid readers buy more books.
OECD researchers are most concerned about poor students. Low-income students made huge strides in accessing digital technology before the pandemic. Across 26 developed countries, 94 percent of students from low-income families had Internet access at home in 2018, up from 75 percent in 2009. Cultural capital such as paper books at home has declined,” the OECD report noted.
As one gap closes, another opens.