World Book Day in the Digital Age

Screen time for children, changing reading behaviours or fears around the decline of the printed book are all topics of the digital age. But technology also offers new ways of exploring the classics.

World Book Day is an annual celebration of the power of books and the enjoyment of reading. It is celebrated across the world. The UNESCO chose 23 April as the date, as it is the day William Shakespeare, Miguel Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega died. In the UK, we already celebrate World Book Day today!  In schools up and down the country, children (and teachers) might dress up as a character from their favourite book, share stories, do quizzes, book fairs, and lots of other activities around books and reading.

Enjoying books and reading for pleasure are good ways to practice literacy skills. So there is a very practical link between fiction and the real world. Beyond improving literacy, fiction reading is seen as the source of a number of other benefits. There has been research  into how real world behaviours might be positively impacted by fiction reading. For children’s literature in particular reading can help young people to understand themselves and so improve wellbeing. A survey by the National Literacy Trust published last year, suggests that the more positive children feel about reading and writing, and the more they enjoy it, the higher their scores on the mental wellbeing index developed by the NLT.

Fiction provides children with an important space to learn how to make sense of the world and it is a crucial source for role models. Importantly, fictional words are not unlike the real world. This point is especially relevant when it comes to gender inequalities. The unequal world in fiction is increasingly questioned: “Must monsters always be male?”.  The number of books for children that can help redress the gender balance is growing and for World Book Day there is no shortage of recommendations.

Reading is exposure to specific – and often gendered – patterns of social knowledge. So what children reads matters. In the digital age, quantitative approaches to the study of literary texts can provide evidence for the extent of gender inequality in fiction more widely. A recent study  of more than 100,000 works of fiction has shown how the number of female authors, as well as the number of female characters declined over a period from the 18th to the 21st century.  

Beyond practising literacy skills, reading contributes to learning social and cultural patterns that children might not even be aware of. Digital technologies offer children new opportunities of experiencing fiction that combine reading with raising awareness of what is being read. In time for World Book Day, we released the latest version of a web application that is developed at the University of Birmingham. CLiC 2.0 (Corpus Linguistics in Context) is freely available and contains over 140 books and 16 million words, including all of Dickens’s and Jane Austen’s novels, texts by Wilkie Collins, Oscar Wilde, the Brontës, etc., specific set texts for A-level and GCSE, as well as a corpus of 19th Century Children’s Literature – compiled for the GLARE project.

In a similar way to how children might browse the internet, they can search words or phrases in a single novel or across a range of texts. The ‘concordance’ display lists all the occurrence of a search word so that specific meanings become visible. A search for the word hands across a number of 19th century novels, for instance, shows that typical patterns include his hands in his pockets but not her hands in her pockets. Such patterns are a way into investigating more detailed questions around gender representations and cultural norms – and not only in terms of fashion!

CLiC supports the development of new skills for reading as well as raising awareness of the relationship between fiction and the real world.  Why not give it a go this World Book Day?

The University of Birmingham is currently running a Digital Reading Competition for schools closing on 7 June 2019.

CLiC is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council Grant reference AH/P504634/1

Professor Michaela Mahlberg, Chair in Corpus Linguistics, University of Birmingham