Are we losing sight of the importance of early literacy?

  • by Teigan Margetts

When we started Ethicool, we thought that we’d find our audience among millennial parents. After all, we were those parents, and we were struggling to find meaningful and sustainably produced books that we actually liked or felt we related to. And weren’t there thousands of millennial parents out there like us who valued sustainability and a good story, and loved reading to their children?!? 

Umm … hmm. 

A year into our journey, we can unequivocally say that we’re a little concerned. Not about finding our audience, though, as that has occurred in droves with thousands of loving grandparents and, increasingly, teachers and early childhood educators worldwide. What we’re really concerned about is millennial parents, just like us. We are seeing - and more and more, studies back us up - that the children of today’s parents are swapping out reading time for screen time. And as a result, the next generation, coined ‘digi kids’ by researchers, are suffering big-time when it comes to literacy. 

So millennial parents, we want to know: are we all losing sight of the importance of early literacy? 

If so, how did we get here? And what should we do about it? With the help of literacy expert, Dr. Allison Greenland from Leap into Literacy, we charted exactly how we’ve seemingly forgotten about literacy … and exactly what we need to do to reverse this dangerous trend.

Does poor literacy have consequences? 

For the average parent out there, literacy seems like a somewhat boring topic, and also something that we more or less take for granted. Of course our kids will learn how to read and write! We think, as we send them off to school to learn the very thing that we should have already set the foundations for. And who cares if they don’t love it! We also think, as we are continually bombarded with information that tells us that the future of all jobs is in STEM and coding, anyway. 

But this is, unfortunately, where we’re getting it all wrong. The jobs of the future, and indeed, any kind of success at all, will require the ability to communicate in an advanced and nuanced manner, as well as a considerable amount of empathy and creativity, two skills which reading are shown to nurture. 

In addition to this, as society is becoming increasingly automated, low-skilled jobs are disappearing, and researchers are already concerned that poor literacy levels will mean that many of today’s children will struggle to find employment. 

So millennial parents, here is a wake-up call for you: literacy is not just about whether your child loves reading. It is also not just about ensuring they get good grades throughout school (something that reading unequivocally helps with). Setting the foundations for early literacy, and then reading, and reading well, is scientifically proven to predict future success and not something we can continue to just ‘assume’ will happen. 

But hang on … how on earth did we come to assume it wasn’t important?

Literacy - past and present

Any of us who were lucky enough to have spent time with our great grandparents and grandparents will know that a lot has changed in the last century. Not 70 years ago, the television wasn’t invented and many people didn’t own cars. In the same period, a lot has also changed when it comes to literacy: in 1960, only 55% of the world could read and write, and now, in developed nations at least, that figure is closer to 95%.

These rapidly increasing literacy rates have had a very positive impact on society, insomuch as they have created many opportunities for people to work and succeed in ways they never imagined possible. But on the other hand, they have also resulted in a somewhat lax attitude when it comes to reading. Many of our parents and grandparents could actively remember knowing people who couldn’t read or write, and understanding how limiting that was. Now, though, it’s much more rare for this to happen. Have we become complacent when it comes to reading? It certainly seems that way. 

Another concerning generational trend that Dr. Greenland has noticed is the swift decline in the number of people reading for pleasure. She explains: 

“A century ago, before televisions and devices, reading for pleasure was an extremely common leisure activity. In fact, in generations such as the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, nearly 100% of people did this.” 

“Nowadays, that figure is vastly less. And without a role model of reading in this way, future generations may view the importance of reading very differently.”

Digi kids struggling with literacy

Concerningly, Dr. Greenland’s observations are backed by many real-world studies. 

One study, run by the National Literacy Trust in 2019, found that just 26% of under-18s spent some time reading each day. Worryingly, this figure had decreased every year since the study was first run in 2005. The same study also found that just 53% of children said they enjoyed reading “very much” or “quite a lot” - a figure which had also decreased year on year. Parents, take note: it is really time to reverse this trend. 

But has the damage already been done? 

According to a recent Four Corners study, it has. Already, many children spend up to 30% of their waking hours in front of a screen. This is having a tangible impact on their vocabulary, with the Growing Up Digital Report showing that children who spend an excessive amount of time in front of a screen start school with a significantly reduced vocabulary, and an impaired ability to catch up when it comes to literacy (and everything else) due to the effect of screen time on attention spans.

In a nutshell, the foundations of early literacy need to be set with books, not screens. And if you think that your child will just ‘catch up later’ you might regretfully discover that that isn’t the case.

Is reading on screen ok, though?

It’s a universal truth at this point that screens will form a large part of our children’s future, so realistically, they do need a healthy amount of exposure to them. That being the case, is reading on a screen a decent substitute for reading a book, given the sheer amount of interactive and educational apps that are now available to help with reading and literacy? 

Not quite, the research says. A multitude of issues have been identified with reading on screen, especially for the purposes of early literacy and learning to read. Studies have shown that reading on a screen subtly impairs comprehension, and encourages the reader to pay less attention. In addition to this, it is more mentally taxing and can be very distracting. In sum, it is not the ideal substitute for a real book. 

When it comes to literacy, though, Dr. Greenland is keen to point out that screen-time reading (and associated literacy apps) is still better than no reading. She says: 

“Society needs to remember that it is not a one-size-fits-all method when it comes to literacy and how each child develops. Many aspects of early literacy, such as learning the alphabet and working with phonics,can be achieved on an iPad and using these is better than doing nothing at all.” 

“But still, these methods need to go hand-in-hand with traditional methods of literacy, such as reading to your child.”

Where to from here?

From one set of millennial parents here at Ethicool to millions of others out there, we say: yes, this all sounds overwhelmingly negative and like we’re on an unstoppable freight train towards a future where our children can’t read, but instead spend all of their waking hours on Instagram. And sadly, in some corners of the internet, this is already proving true. This viral video, showing one-year-olds trying to scroll and pinch magazines as if they were iPads, is evidence enough of a generation for whom books may become unrecognizable. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Dr. Greenland. She is a lot more optimistic about our children’s future, and believes that there is just one simple thing we all need to do to help put our little ones on a positive literacy path: 

“The biggest help that a parent, grandparent or teacher can give is to read with a child. There are so many benefits to reading aloud, including those related to literacy skills such as building phonemic awareness, vocabulary and reading fluency.” 

“Reading aloud also helps teach reading comprehension skills, which can in turn help a child activate prior knowledge, make predictions, question what they are reading, and visualise a book.” 

“All of these skills are critical for future literacy development.”

So millennial parents, you heard it here first: Buy books. Read aloud. Read often. Start now. 


Ethicool’s sustainable and inspiring range of children’s books are yet to be loved by millennial parents, but we’re sure this article will change that (*laughing cheeky face*). Ethicool has sold more than 20,000 books, though, and garnered hundreds of five star reviews, so if you’re starting to read to your little ones, start here.

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