Learning to read on computers and tablets reduces children's enjoyment of reading, a new study has found.
The Ministry of Education study is the latest of a series of reports looking for reasons behind a steep drop in reading performance by NZ students in Year 5 - aged 9 or 10 - in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls).
The Kiwi students in the last Pirls survey in 2016 were the most likely to have access to computers during reading instruction (93 per cent), but their reading levels dropped below all other English-speaking countries to 32nd out of 50 countries surveyed.
The NZ Year 5 students were also the most likely in the world to be asked to look up information online, research a topic online and write on a computer during reading lessons, and first-equal with Australian students in being asked to read on computers.
The study found that there was no relationship between how often teachers asked their students to do these activities and how confident they were as readers.
"There was, however, a significant relationship between the frequency of digital teaching activities and how much students liked reading," the study found.
"Students who took part in three or more of the digital reading activities at least weekly, liked reading less.
"On closer scrutiny, the activity which had the strongest relationship with students liking reading was how often students wrote stories on computers during their reading lessons, with students who did this more often saying that they liked reading less.
"The activity which had the weakest relationship with how much students liked reading was 'reading on computers during reading lessons'."
The study also showed that New Zealand students had the greatest access to computers but the lowest reading scores among eight OECD nations surveyed.
Computers were available for 93 per cent of students here, higher than Australia (75 per cent), the United States (70 per cent) and Singapore (55 per cent).
Yet New Zealand students scored only 523 in the Pirls reading test, lower than these same countries. Australia scored 544, the US 549 and Singapore 576.
Pakuranga parents Kathryn and Roger Firth, who send their sons to the Michael Park Steiner school in Ellerslie, limit gaming time for 14-year-old Jasper to three hours a week and only let 9-year-old Hamish use a computer for piano lessons.
Instead they have read books to the boys since they were young and now encourage them to read books themselves.
"Hamish would read almost every day," Kathryn Firth said.
They gave Jasper his own phone last Christmas, and let him use it up to an hour and a half a day on weekdays and two and a half hours a day on weekends.
"I'm certainly not against the digital world, and I think you have to work with that because it's part of their world now, yet I don't want it to take over everything," Kathryn said.
"When Jasper's not on his phone and not doing other things, he will read. He has always got a book on the go."
Another Michael Park parent and teacher Luis Bernal said his 14-year-old daughter Karla still didn't have a phone and "was never in touch with computers in any way other than watching movies now and then" - yet learned to read when she was ready.
"One day she started reading when she was in class 3 [Year 4]," he said.
"The process was so organic that when she started reading it was such a magical discovery.
"I believe that by pushing these things, we lose a bit of the natural pace and magic of it. Computers and reading can become awfully dull and technical and dry if the magic is not there."
However West Harbour 8-year-old Megan Purcell said she preferred to read on a digital program called Sunshine Classics which her school started using during this year's lockdowns. The program includes questions about the story at the end which students can answer online, and they can send a recording of themselves reading the book to their teacher.
"I have to work it out by myself. Even if I do it wrong, it gives me a tick," she said.
The study suggests that children may enjoy reading on computers less than reading books because of "increased cognitive load" in digital texts compared with the simple text and pictures of a printed book.
But a professor of digital learning at Macquarie University who led a seven-year study of using apps to teach reading while at Waikato University from 2011-17, Professor Garry Falloon, said the best apps worked well if they removed distractions such as pop-ups and hyperlinks, leaving just the text as they appeared in books.
"The ones the kids enjoyed the most, and benefited from the most, were the ones where there was an actual person in the app - there was a strange-looking guy with a funny hat who was teaching them just like the teacher would," he said.
"They could interact with a real person. They were more effective than all the drill-and-skill apps, which were of no benefit at all.
"Some of the apps that were most effective had more scaffolding [help] built into the app. Certainly for kids with reading difficulties, some of the assistive functions such as text-to-speech were really powerful."
Meanwhile, a companion Ministry of Education report has found that the average size of school libraries has shrunk since the first Pirls survey in 2001, and that the proportion of students borrowing books from their school library has declined.
School Library Association president Glenys Bichan said some schools were turning libraries into classrooms to cope with growing rolls, and cutting librarians' hours and book budgets to fund other priorities.
Matt McCallum, principal of Monrad Intermediate in Palmerston North, confirmed that he is looking at turning his library into a classroom to cope with roll growth and moving the books into a resource room.
The Library Association has started a petition asking the Ministry of Education to "mandate every student to have access to a school library staffed by specialist school librarians and funded by the ministry".