This morning I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 podcast – Just One Thing with Michael Mosely. Each week he puts forward a suggestion of one activity that can improve our health and wellbeing.
This week it was about reading. Michael discovers how losing yourself in a novel for a short time each day can boost your brainpower, improve social bonds and, surprisingly, help you live longer.
I’ve been hearing and reading a lot recently about the decline in reading and that humanity has reached its intelligence peak – it’s all downhill from here – apparently. According to some sources.
Is there a decline in reading?
‘only 23% of 0-17s read for pleasure daily or nearly every day, down from 26% in 2019 and 38% in 2012.’
As an author, I find this alarming. If people are reading less, and more writers are publishing books, then surely the pool of potential readers is going to become a muddy battlefield! Like those images of animals drinking from a diminishing watering hole – the giraffes, lions, and wildebeest are the writers, whilst the little puddle denotes the readers – depressing. Every writer for themselves!!
‘According to the National Literacy Trust, a major 16% of adults are considered to be ‘functionally illiterate’ in the United Kingdom. Literacy levels are falling among the younger generations and it is stated that 1 in 5 adults struggle to read and write.’
Is the UK getting dumber?
‘Two in five (43%) Britons say they read for pleasure at least once a week, with a third (35%) doing so multiple times and 19% of UK adults reading every day. Britain’s keenest readers tend to be older, with 34% of Brits over 55 saying they read at least once a day, compared to just 7% of 18 to 24-year-olds.’
‘Readability data suggest that the average reading age of the UK population is 9 years – that is, they have achieved the reading ability normally expected of a 9-year-old. The Guardian has a reading age of 14 and the Sun has a reading age of 8.25’. Given that the average reading age of a GCSE exam paper is 15 years and 7 months, how can we expect young people to pass these exams if they cannot read and understand what’s on the paper in front of them?
Another report by the OECD found that England is the only country in the developed world in which adults aged 55-to-65 perform better in literacy and numeracy than those aged 16-to-24. That is, my age group reads more and has a higher literacy comprehension than my daughter’s age group – one day, the 55-65-year-olds will be dead – this means that in time, the basic skills of the English labour force could fall further behind those of other countries.
Not just the UK.
Total book reading is declining significantly, according to some studies in America. The percentage of the U.S. adult population reading any books has declined by -7 per cent over the past decade. It has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years. Less than half of the adult American population now reads literature.’ I’m simply stunned. From a purely selfish point of view – who will buy my books?!
And it’s not just Western countries. India is seeing a decline in the number of young people reading. ‘”It is not that students are not acquiring knowledge, but they browse the internet instead of reading books,” said Patna University English teacher Shiv Jatan Thakur. Browsing (like wildebeest) seems to be the norm.
We’ve seen diminishing numbers of visitors to libraries. Local libraries, school and college libraries, have become ‘Learning Resource’ centres, where students can go onto a computer to work – the books on the shelves sit sadly, overlooked, unread. Just give me a moment to pull myself together….
Places like the Netherlands and Norway, those countries I would usually have held up as examples of culturally intelligent, are also noticing this decline. What on earth is going on?
IQ = Idiocy Quotient?
Is there a connection between IQ and reading/literacy rates? Is there a connection between declining IQ and reading rates, and TV or similar media consumption?
In Norway, Ole Rogeberg and Bernt Bratsberg, of the Ragnar Frisch Centre for Economic Research in Oslo, analysed the scores from a standardized IQ test of more than 730,000 men who reported [in Norway] for national service between 1970 and 2009. They saw a decline in IQ scores.
The results showed that those born in 1991 scored about five points lower than those born in 1975, and three points lower than those born in 1962. These results, we are informed, are applicable not just in Norway, but also globally. Our IQ levels are falling – and no one knows why!
Are humans getting dumber? Have we reached our homogenised collective intellectual pinnacle as a species? Or can I not see the wood for the trees? Am I being pessimistic? Will a ‘new breed’ arise that will invigorate our collective intelligence (or lack thereof), make reading for pleasure the norm and save the planet? I bloody well hope so, because it’s not looking too great at the moment folks!
Who or What Is to Blame?
It’s easy – and lazy? – to blame the internet/TikTok/Twitter/Facebook et al. Some studies show that reading for pleasure, or leisure reading, has been in decline since the late 80s early 90s…well before the widespread use of electronic hardware. The Netherlands has long blamed television.
One study found people could retain and process data significantly better if their smartphones were in another room. Just turning their phone off, or hiding it in a pocket or bag, didn’t work; phone owners still suffered brain drain when their device was nearby. Let’s pause and absorb this…. okay. So, what they’re saying is, that the proximity of a smartphone hinders one’s ability to think. Hmm, so shouldn’t we be banning them from classrooms? Or am I curtailing people’s freedoms?
Is it genetic? What is the makeup of the study groups? There’s the ‘dumb people have more babies’ hypothesis, but research shows that even within single families IQ has declined. Is it our environment? Is it something ‘in the water’? Have we created a stupid-inducing culture?
In the multitude of studies on declining IQ, they’ve shown the impact of technology obsession, genetics, poor diets, quality of schooling, and, yes, you guessed it folks – decline in reading!
Finland is the world’s most literate nation, according to new research, with the UK coming in 17th, behind countries including the US, Canada and Australia.
Finland has been coming top of the literacy tables for a very long time now. Studies would suggest there is not only something inherent within their culture but whatever goes on in their education system is, quite frankly, brilliant. I’ve read that teaching in Finland is a well-respected profession. The application process is difficult, and teachers are very well paid.
Some 22.2% of adults in Finland aged 16 to 65 attain the two highest levels of proficiency in literacy (Level 4 or 5) compared with the average of 11.8% of adults in all participating countries. What their studies are revealing is, that young Finns are more literate than older Finns. This is a reverse of the UK where the literate are older. Does this mean that Finland is producing the ‘new breed’ that I spoke of earlier? In twenty, thirty, or forty years, will we all be speaking and reading Finnish? Funny how the country that gave birth to the inventors of internet browsers – that thing some of us want to blame for our low literacy rates, is also the most literate!
Read More Books
So, back to Michael at the BBC. I began by introducing Mr Mosely’s podcast as an attempt to get listeners to try something different to help make their lives better. To increase our well-being, our physical and mental states, and more.
During the course of the programme, he hopes to “…boost my empathy and my mental health…” through daily reading. A test subject takes on the challenge for a week, and Mosely speaks to some clever chap who conducted studies. We are told that reading can increase brain activity, and productivity and create neural pathways! What’s not to love about that?!
People complain that they don’t have time to read. Reading novels is something that can be fitted into each day, bedtime might suit best. But a chapter here or there isn’t going to take up much time. Read in the bath. Read during your lunch breaks. Put your feet up after a day in the office, grab a cuppa and a book, escape for a while. Go on, do it! Mr Mosely reveals that reading actually is more beneficial to mental health than a spa day!