Education: Busy children make better readers

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Busy under-eights who rush from one activity to another tend to be better readers than their less active peers, says a survey. Judith Judd, Education Editor, looks at findings which suggest that children with a varied lifestyle do better even than those who never watch television.

Football at 3.30? Tea with Henrietta at 5? Computer games at 6.30? For those parents who spend their lives taxiing children from one pursuit to the next, the news is good. It may all be worthwhile. A survey of more than 5,000 eight-year-olds by the National Foundation for Educational Research shows that moderation in all things is the key to success.

Researchers asked children how often they took part in six activities: watching television or videos, playing with friends, playing sports, reading books, doing jobs at home and playing computer games. They were asked in questionnaires to reply "most days", "some days" or "never".

Their replies were then compared with their score in standardised reading tests. Except in the case of reading books, children who did the various activities sometimes had higher scores than those who did them most days or never.

Unsurprisingly, children who never read books and who spent most time on other activities read less well than others but there was no significant difference between those who read most days and those who read only on some days.

Children who never watched television had lower scores than those who watched it some days though half of the sample said that they preferred watching television to reading books.

The authors, Greg Brooks, Ian Schagen and Peggy Nastat, are cautious about their findings and say further investigation is needed into why a broad span of out-of-school activities appears to be associated with better reading.

Mr Schagen said yesterday: "It may simply be that those with more varied lives are brighter."

About one-fifth of children said that they never read out of school and had already switched off reading, a pattern which is likely to persist into adulthood, according to the study. Their attitude was reflected in their scores in the tests.

"The problems of pupils who have negative attitudes to reading, or report difficulty in reading, or read infrequently for pleasure, need to be tackled very early in their school lives," the authors say.

The report says that reading standards of eight-year-olds have remained largely unchanged since the Second World War, apart from a fall between 1987 and 1991. Standards rose again after 1991 and by 1995 were back to the same level as in 1987.

It suggests that the reason for the fall in the late Eighties may have been the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 and the high turn-over of teachers during the same period.

l David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, yesterday attacked parents who ignored their children's education because they were "too busy". The tough message came at a conference in Sheffield, where Mr Blunkett said parents had a key role in raising school standards.

Parents could no more plead poverty as an excuse than a lack of time, Mr Blunkett said, adding that, in helping parents, the Government had to be "both tough and tender". "Far from being a nanny state, we must become an enabling state which ensures that