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The researchers exploring what – and how – Australian teenagers read

  • 3 May, 2021
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By A.B Endacott

What do you know about the reading habits of the general population?

More than that, what do you know about the reading habits of teenagers across Australia?

The answer is probably not that much. If knowledge is power, the information that can direct publishing trends, curricula, and ever-elusive funding for literacy events and programs is all too often lacking.

Some estimates suggest that as significant an amount as 70% of the people who buy and read books classed as Young Adult are actually over the age of 18. We have some data on the reading habits of adults – often more so women than men due to the fact that women are more likely to be members of communities where they discuss their reading habits; only 2.5% of surveyed book groups are male-dominated with the notable exception of the Tough Guy Book Club – although it’s not a lot.

With that being said, we know far more about adult readers than we do about teenage readers. Teenagers have social norms – on and off line – that can often fly under the radar of those who look at reading behaviours and patterns.

Think about it. Who wants to post about what they’re reading in the same way their parents do? But the consequence of this is that we have huge black holes in our collective knowledge when it comes to whether the books which are supposed to be written for teenagers are in fact appealing to that demographic.

So who is trying to fill that research ‘hole’ about what and how young people read?

The Deakin Teen Reading Project is a cross-institution collaboration that is in the process of redressing this. The two ‘burning questions’ which informed the direction of the project are as follows:

What makes teen readers select or decide to read a book?
1. Where do they get their information?
2. How do they choose?

How do you engage/re-engage reluctant readers?
1. Lack of knowledge about how to reach non-readers.

What are the project’s initial findings?

As part of the initial phase of their investigation, the Deakin Teen Reading Project researcher conducted a series of interviews with people who generally are expected to have contact with young people in a book-related context.

Their key findings revealed a variety of interesting takeaways. Of particular interest is the fact that there is limited contact with actual or potential readers, barring the sizeable role played by peers, school librarians, teachers and booksellers.

Another observation that will surprise very few is that the absence of an information sharing forum – such as the Centre for Youth Literature provided – further complicates understanding the link between teenagers and what they read.

Taken directly from the findings of the scoping study, the following highlights the importance of reading, and understanding what and why teenagers read what they do:

  • There is a clear link between reading for pleasure and school and later work outcomes.
  • Teenagers are reading, but their reading choices are diverse, and mediated by cultural contexts, social influences, place, conditions of access, as well as individual factors.
  • Recreational reading faces increased narrative competition from screen texts, and thus literary, screen and online fandoms overlap. This has implications for Australian literature and literary culture.
  • There also appears to be little Australian research on genre preferences in long-form reading (books) or the effects of author or publisher interactions with readers.
  • We lack Australian studies of reading for various purposes in different geographical locations and social environments. Diverse contexts affect reading preferences, practices, access and impacts on adolescents’ reading choices.

What are the next steps?

Professor Michael Dezuanni (Queensland University of Technology) is in the process of examining the digital ecology of various online platforms, and has begun to map the various reader behaviours that take place on the online reader communities that were facilitated by various platforms.

The reason this is significant work is because looking at what and how people post to their peers tells us a lot about the way readers interact with books. The next step was a focus group of actual teenagers (!) conducted at the beginning of this year, followed by interviews with teenagers across 2021.

The results of these focus groups (the full report for which can be found here) show that the school library is also the main source for teenagers to get their hands on books.

Moreover, the focus groups unearthed that most participants also share their views of the books they are reading in their local communities – with extended family members, school friends, and familiar adults.

This raises an interesting point, because teenagers don’t often contribute to review mechanisms which influence publishing trends. Similarly, all reviews that are quoted on book jackets are from adults writing for media publications. So their perspective of the text is as adult one, rather than necessarily accessing what a teenage reader might understand or enjoy.

That isn’t to say there isn’t overlap – a good book is a good book – but when we’re talking about reaching teenage readers (who become adult readers), and looking at what books to put on curriculums, or even to pitch to them at various points in their lives, we’re flying relatively blind.

One thing’s for sure, #LoveOzYA will be keenly following the Teen Reading project as they move through the next phase of their investigation!

You can find out more at the Teen Reading in the Digital Era website.