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Reading both digital and print formats offers highest benefit for young people’s literacy

New research supports Axe the Reading Tax campaign to remove VAT on digital publications.

Young people who are the most engaged with reading are more likely to read both on paper and on screen than their peers who have low engagement with reading, finds new research by the National Literacy Trust.

A survey of 56,905 children and young people aged 9 to 18 in the UK found that twice as many young people who read above the level expected for their age read fiction both in print and on screen compared with those who read below the expected level (23.8% vs 12.9%).

Launched at an event in Parliament today, the research supports the next step in the Axe the Reading Tax campaign, galvanising support from MPs to urge the Chancellor to remove VAT on digital publications, including ebooks and audiobooks, in the Autumn Budget.

Report author Irene Picton, National Literacy Trust, said: “Our findings suggest that offering children and young people the opportunity to read not just a wide range of materials, but the chance to access these through different formats, may hold benefits not just for those children less engaged by print reading but potentially for all readers.”

Other key findings from the research include:

  • The number of children and young people aged 9 to 18 reading digitally is increasing. Those with low reading engagement are more likely than those with high reading engagement to consume reading materials on screen – potentially providing opportunities to better engage them with reading in the future.

  • While reading of most materials across both formats declined between 2017/18 and 2019, there were small increases in the number of children and young people reading fiction, non-fiction and comics digitally.

  • Pupils eligible for free school meals and boys with the lowest levels of reading engagement are two of the groups most likely to benefit from using digital formats: 24.3% of pupils on free school meals read fiction digitally compared to 16.3% of their peers who were not eligible for free school meals, while 1 in 4 disengaged boy readers said that they read fiction on screen compared to just 1 in 10 of their more engaged peers (25.4% vs 9.8%).

Jonathan Douglas, Director of the National Literacy Trust, said: “Digital reading is becoming an increasingly important part of children’s literacy lives. It gives children new and exciting ways to access a wide range of reading materials and is particularly effective at getting disengaged groups of children excited about reading. We know that when children enjoy reading, they do better at school and in life, so we fully back the campaign to Axe the Reading Tax on digital publications.”

Stephen Lotinga, CEO of the Publishers Association, said: “This new research demonstrates the importance of digital reading as a vital part of developing reading attainment and enthusiasm in young people. It makes no sense that while print books are rightly VAT zero-rated, their digital equivalents are not. Digital VAT is blocking literacy at a time we should be doing everything possible to encourage reading and learning across all formats. That is why we are asking MPs to back the Axe the Reading Tax campaign and call on the Chancellor to act in the Autumn Budget.”

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