Does reading ability decline between primary and secondary school?

This is a question that persistently comes up in the press. In fact, last year there was a rash of reports by the BBC, The Guardian and even the Daily Mail highlighting the fact that as children progress through secondary school, there’s an increasing tendency for them to read less, as well as reading less challenging books.

Is reading still important?

Yes. Reading is at the very heart of good education and an essential building block for everything else. It helps develop the brain, improve language skills and reasoning. Children who read regularly develop a broader vocabulary, improved grammar and punctuation, an increased understanding of the world and better general knowledge.

Good reading can also improve a child’s cognitive skills, how they process things, their writing skills and helps them develop their imagination. All of which can make a big difference to their educational performance.

Finally, as your child works their way through the demands of the secondary school curriculum, they need strong reading skills to do well in nearly all their other subjects as well as to enjoy activities outside school.

So, does a child’s reading ability really decline during their secondary years?

It would appear so, yes. For the last 10 years, an organisation called Renaissance have been carrying out annual research entitled the “What Kids Are Reading report”. In 2019 this revealed:  

Pupils steadily read more books each year in the first three years, reaching a peak in Year 3 at 37 books. After this the number of books read per year steadily declined…Average book difficulty rose as pupils got older in the primary school, but plateaued in the secondary school. Older pupils in Years 9–13 were still reading the same difficulty of books as upper primary pupils.

The report went on to explain that the quality of comprehension tended to rise in primary school, but declined in secondary school, with the highest levels of comprehension “in the last two years of primary school, but in the first year of secondary school and beyond it fell sharply.”.

This isn’t a new finding by Renaissance and in 2018, the same research worrying revealed that the gap in a child’s reading ability and age widens each year at secondary school.

Research done last year by the National Literacy Trust as part of their “Read On. Get On” campaign also highlighted “daily reading levels continue to be an area of great concern” and “Girls continue to outperform boys in all areas of reading, with a particularly marked gap in daily reading levels.”

What’s the reason for the decline?

Well as you’d expect, there are a number of reasons.  For a start, at primary school there is greater focus and more time set aside for literacy skills. But with such a full-on curriculum, there is rarely time for this at secondary school.

There’s also of course the fact that as children reach their teenage years, they have other things to focus on and other distractions. Some children may be reading more challenging books which in part might explain why they’re reading fewer books. But this is not always the case.

As parents, we also live increasingly busy lives, so that finding the time to take our children to the bookshop or library and encourage them to read, can slip down to the bottom of the to do list. Not to mention the challenge of finding the genre of book that really interests your child.

What’s the solution?

  • Finding more time is one answer. Some evidence suggestions that just setting aside as little as 20 minutes a day might make a difference. But you still have to fight those other distractions…YouTube, the Xbox or time spent with friends. And we all know how difficult that can be.

  • Enrol them with MagiKats. Strong literacy skills underpin all our workshops. We encourage your child to read in a fun environment where there’s also accountability. If your child is age 5 to 9 years old, we focus on building their literacy skills, as well as reading and writing comprehension of both fiction and non-fiction texts.

    For children aged 11 and older, we continue to support them across a variety of English topics to help consolidate and improve their reading, writing and comprehension, again of both fiction and non-fiction texts.

    Students attend a weekly workshop, and then usually receive a weekly work pack of five, short, core skills assignments. These are designed to maintain their learning momentum until their next visit. We can also suggest suitable reading material and of course, you’re not left with the battle of the books or trying to squeeze a reading session in between Fortnite and dinner.

You can find out more about our private tuition workshops and how they can help with reading ability at