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As reading struggles to take hold with many young New Zealanders, can technology help? Make suggestions, win books

A good book that keeps you gripped until the small hours is one of life’s great pleasures. But many New Zealanders – 400,000 of us, recent research has shown – did not even start a book last year. We are a proud nation of readers but these days reading has to compete hard with our screens for attention. 

For many of us, the act of reading is hard. Just under half of us read at a level below that needed to function in society. So it is no surprise that the New Zealand Book Council, whose aim is to grow a nation of readers, is focusing on encouraging New Zealanders to read and to pick up a book and read for pleasure.

We know reading drops away in particular for many boys when they are 10–12 years old, resulting in low levels of literacy. This impacts on their future employment and well-being. With like-minded partners, we recently held a co-design workshop in October with 25 Year 6, 7 and 8 boys who are reluctant readers. They told us that they think books are boring, reading is hard, and playing sports and video games are more interesting. The boys thought those that read by choice were lonely, bad at sport and nerdy. Reading is uncool. Reading needs an image overhaul.

But they also told us what will change the game for them. They want books that are practical ‘how-to guides’ on topics they want to know about (strategies to win basketball and video games, hunting, driving, wrestling) and that tell stories about real people’s lives.

The boys want their reading experience to be dynamic, social and embedded in the activities they enjoy. They thought subtitles could be included in their favourite online games, libraries could be like escape rooms, spaces could transform into 3D images of what they were reading, or basketball hoops would only work if they read a chapter before shooting.  

So rather than always expecting boys to come out of their world of high-energy gaming and screen-based lives to silent read, perhaps there are solutions where we can meet them halfway? Could we embed more reading into their world? Could digital, tech or innovative solutions lead them to long-form reading like that in books? How can we overhaul the current image of reading – which is clearly losing to gaming – given being able to read will be critical to their future success? How can we tackle often intractable social issues – such as illiteracy and the poor image of reading – through technological innovation? 

If you have an idea on how tech can help address this issue, add your suggestion in the comments below or email [email protected]. All those who propose an idea will go into the draw to win one New Zealand book – Empty Bones and other Stories, by Breton Dukes; Oxygen, by William Trubridge; Hand Coloured New Zealand, by Peter Alsop; and To the Memory – New Zealand’s War Memorials, by Jock Philips. 

Three ways technology is being used to enhance or improve reading: 

1) App-based storytelling

Everyone remembers the Pick-a-Path books from their childhood. And while there’s still some debate about how much of a role online and gaming experiences should play in learning to read at an early or advanced level, but technology like Twisted Tales is helping with foundational reading skills and allowing children to choose their own adventure. 

2) Augmented reality

Books like Dragon Defenders and The Boy and The Lemon are using technology to enhance the reading experience and add interactive elements. 

3) Speed reading

For those who don’t want to read silently and slowly, maybe they should sit down and read quickly, instead. That’s what Spritz allows you to do. 

Jo Cribb has a varied portfolio career which includes being chief executive of the New Zealand Book Council. She has worked on some of New Zealand’s toughest problems including child poverty, violence against women and child abuse as a senior leader in government and NGO volunteer.  She is interested in learning more about applying technology to the tough social issues we face.  

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