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Blog post Part of special issue: To read, or not to read?

Using participatory research to understand young people’s reading experiences

Charlotte Webber, PhD Student at University of Edinburgh

Research has found adolescence (specifically 12–16 years old) to be associated with declines in reading motivation, enjoyment, attitude, frequency and engagement (see for example Clark, 2019). As reading for pleasure is known to be associated with several cognitive, emotional and social benefits (see for example Mar, 2018), supporting adolescents to develop their personal reading practices remains the focus of much research and classroom practice.

Notably, however, much reading research is adult-led and doesn’t focus on the knowledge and experiences of adolescents themselves. Adolescents’ reading lives are unique and complex (Jones, 2022) and adopting a more collaborative approach is necessary to avoid reinforcing adult assumptions about their lives (Schäfer & Yarwood, 2008). Participatory approaches seek to break away from the traditional research conventions which only include adolescents as participants, aiming to collaborate with them from the start to the end of a project (Torre & Fine, 2006) to put their own knowledge and experience at the heart of the research.

In my research, members of a young people’s advisory panel have worked alongside adult researchers on a participatory project exploring adolescents’ reading experiences from their own perspectives (Webber et al., 2022). Adolescents aged 13–14 years designed and carried out semi-structured interviews with their peers, working alongside adult researchers to interpret what young people said about their reading practices and reading engagement.

From these interviews several themes emerged, illustrating that adolescents’ perspectives on reading for pleasure are extremely varied. For example, reading for pleasure could be viewed as a form of entertainment, a means to pass time, to connect with others, a way to disconnect from technology, or for personal development. However, it could also be viewed as time-consuming and effortful, and associated with schoolwork. These perceptions could impact adolescents’ real reading practices. For example, viewing reading as a form of entertainment may position it as an enjoyable activity that adolescents are motivated to dedicate time to. On the contrary, viewing reading as effortful may lead adolescents to prioritise ‘easier’ ways of achieving the same outcomes (such as watching TV to escape the stresses of everyday life).

‘Adolescents’ perspectives on reading for pleasure are extremely varied. For example, reading for pleasure could be viewed as a form of entertainment, a means to pass time, to connect with others, a way to disconnect from technology, or for personal development.’

Adolescents’ perspectives on the changes in their reading practices since childhood were also varied. Some felt they read more as children (aligning with previous research), whereas others reported having a more regular reading practice in adolescence. Time emerged as a key factor; some felt they had more time to read when they were younger, while some felt they had more time in adolescence. Others noted having different priorities during adolescence, wanting to spend more time with friends or having to spend more time on schoolwork. The ability to easily access books – especially those linked with personal interests – and being encouraged to read by others and enjoying reading in school were additional factors which adolescents felt contributed towards their motivation to read for pleasure at different stages of their lives.

Utilising research approaches which enable exploration of adolescents’ reading experiences from their own perspectives can help to bridge the gap between researcher knowledge and the lived experiences of adolescents themselves. Reasons for reading (and not reading) during adolescence are complex and it is important to work alongside adolescents to understand their unique reading preferences, goals and experiences in order to develop relevant strategies to support them.


Clark, C. (2019). Children and young people’s reading in 2017/18: Findings from our annual literacy survey. National Literacy Trust.

Jones, S. (2022). Turning away from anti‐blackness: A critical review of adolescent reading motivation research. Reading Research Quarterly, 57(4), 1107–1127.

Mar, R. A. (2018). Stories and the promotion of social cognition. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(4), 257–262.

Schäfer, N., & Yarwood, R. (2008). Involving young people as researchers: Uncovering multiple power relations among youths. Children’s Geographies, 6(2), 121–135.

Torre, M., & Fine, M. (2006). Researching and resisting: Democratic policy research by and for youth. In P. Noguera, J. Cammarota, & S. Ginwright (Eds.), Beyond Resistance, (pp. 269–285). Routledge.

Webber, C., Young People’s Advisory Panel, Wilkinson, K., Duncan, L. G., & McGeown, S. (2022). Participatory research with young people: Benefits, limitations, and methodological considerations. OFS Preprints. Advance online publication.  


Supervisors: Dr Sarah McGeown (University of Edinburgh), Katherine Wilkinson (Scottish Book Trust), Dr Lynne Duncan (University of Dundee)

Funders: ESRC and Scottish Book Trust

Further information: