Despite the real and perceived benefits of
reading—cognitive, social and psychological—many women do
not choose to read, particularly books, as a regular leisure
activity. In this paper, using empirical evidence and
personal construct psychology
as the framework, it is argued that
women develop reading constructs that, by the time of
adolescence, become core constructs forming part of the
self-concept that remain stable throughout the life span.
These constructs are shaped by the individual’s environment,
particularly family and friends, and influence their
perception of their reading behaviour and skills. When
considering the reading construct, it is a common belief
that a reader is someone who reads books and a non-reader is
someone who either reads nothing or reads other materials,
e.g., magazines. A woman who believes herself to be a
reader may read books throughout her lifespan, whereas a
woman who believes herself to be a non-reader will probably
not read books after her primary schooling is completed.
Women who consider themselves to be non-readers may change
their reading behaviour as adults if there are certain
conditions present to encourage them to start, but they
exercise limited agency in their reading practices.
Constructs, reading, socialisation, women
For this paper reading is restricted to the
reading of print books and periodicals (magazines and
newspapers) undertaken for leisure and pleasure. The
definition of reading for pleasure is taken from Clark and
pleasure refers to reading that we do of our own free will
anticipating the satisfaction that we will get from the act
of reading. It also refers to reading that having begun at
someone else’s request we continue because we are interested
in it. It typically involves materials that reflect our own
choice, at a time and place that suits us (p. 1).
individuals’ lifespans their reading activity has been shown
to go through cycles that reflect their lifestage. Table 1
shows the percentage of the population that read on a daily
basis by age group, based on Great Britain’s National
Statistics Time Use Survey 2005 and the work of Clark and
Foster for the National Literacy Trust in 2005.
Reading throughout the lifespan: percentage of population
reading daily by age
As can be
seen, there is a decrease in reading activity between
primary and secondary school and on leaving school. From
the age of 25, the percentage of the population reading
starts to increase, slowly up to the age of 64 and then
dramatically over 65, to reach the same percentage as those
at primary school. If figures were taken for monthly rather
than daily reading, the percentages would be larger, but the
trends would remain the same. It is claimed, for example,
by the Skills for Life Survey 2003 that up to 99% of the
population read at least monthly. These reading activity
changes have been noted in many reports and are due mainly
to lifestage and amount of time available for reading. The
main factors in determining the amount of reading undertaken
is presence of children in the home (Book Marketing Limited,
2000; Mintel, 2003, 2004), number of hours worked (Great
Britain, 2000, 2005) and increasingly active social life (BML,
It is argued in this paper that this change
in reading habits and behaviour is not only affected by
lifestyle but by how a woman construes herself as a reader.
Those who think of themselves as readers are likely to read
throughout their lifespan whatever their lifestage, but
those who consider themselves to be non-readers will
probably not read books after primary schooling is
completed. This reading construct is a core construct that
remains stable throughout life and forms part of an
individual’s self-concept; it influences a woman’s
perception of her reading behaviour and skills. A woman who
considers herself to be a non-reader may start to read books
if certain conditions are present to encourage her to start,
but she will exercise limited agency in her reading
These conclusions are drawn from both the
literature and empirical evidence. Empirical evidence was
collected from fourteen women of one family aged eighteen to
ninety-four years old, born into four generations spanning
the twentieth century. (Table 2 below shows the sample,
including date of birth and whether they construe themselves
to be readers or non-readers.)
Sample involved in the study, showing relationships to each
other and date of birth and whether they consider themselves
to be readers or non-readers.
Elsie (1906 – 2003)
The information was collected using an
ethnographic interview of between two and six hours and a
self-characterisation. The data was analysed using Personal
Construct Theory. Of the 14 women, four considered
themselves to be readers and 10 non-readers. Of the 10 who
considered themselves to be non-readers, nine read regularly
or occasionally and one never reads anything. The names of
the women have been altered.
are considered by the respondents to be those people who
read books, and non-readers those people who do not
read books. Even if people read periodicals, which many of
the respondents did, this is not considered to be ‘reading’
by the sample.
… I mean my
memory of reading is that I was not a reader… I mean I
regret it now, I really regret it ‘cause I enjoy books, I
love books, and I think if only I had opened these books and
started them I would have got so much out of it. … (Mary).
I don’t read
much at all, I mainly watch the television. I shouldn’t
really … I should read more really, I like reading but I
just don’t read. I just never think about reading
construct is thus clearly defined and there is a limited
range of convenience,
i.e. books. Reading is the superordinate
construct that forms part of the self-concept, but there are
subordinate constructs associated with it—the attributes of
a reader, someone who has
advanced literacy skills
general and cultural knowledge
concentration and attention
education, either formally or informally
These have been subsumed into the
superordinate construct of reader.
read a lot have a larger vocabulary and write better…
reads] she is a good reader, she has a good vocabulary (Mary
talking about her daughter Molly).
It is not surprising that there is a limited
range of convenience for the reading construct and that it
is books, as society as a whole considers “reading” to be
“reading books.” When we start reading, it is from books;
books are used to reinforce reading at school; and when
reading is discussed in the media, it is in relation to
books, e.g. the Read On campaign.
The subordinate elements (identified above)
are those that have been identified in several research
studies as being linked to those people who read books (Radway,
1987; Gold, 1990; West, Stanovich & Mitchell, 1993; Gorard,
Fevre & Rees, 1999; Lyons, 1999; Datta & Macdonald-Ross,
2002; Duffy, 2004; Rebuck, 2004).
The respondents did not consider the elements
of a non-reader in detail, with the exception of poorer
literacy skills and the lack of ability to concentrate.
… I do not
read a lot of books as I lose my concentration easily … I
can not concentrate. I was getting into it [Memoirs of a
Geisha] but it is hard to get back into the story when
there are other things to do… [I am] not a terrific book
reader, [I will] maybe start one recommended but do not
finish it due to distractions… [I] do not pick it up
[again] as [I] can not remember [the] story. … [I have]
never finished a book and thought WOW, in fact I do think I
have finished a book (Emily)
suggests that reading identity is a core construct and that
this develops from perceived competence in reading.
Attempts to alter constructs concerning reading identity can
lead to hostility as learners seek to protect their
threatened personal constructs (p. 31).
With the exception of one, respondents in
this sample did not remember any difficulties in learning to
read. Their reading competence developed “normally” or even
at an earlier age than their contemporaries. It seems that
the development of their reading construct was dependent on
their socialisation process, particularly role modelling and
identification rather than perceived reading competence.
Once they defined themselves as a reader or a non-reader,
they appear to have incorporated some or most of the
associated subordinate constructs. These may have become
more differentiated and defined in adolescence through
maturation and learning, reinforced by their experiences at
school and in their communities.
Development of reading construct
The majority of respondents learned to read
at school, with encouragement from their nuclear and
extended family members. Literacy is valued by all
respondents, as is reading. Literacy and reading is viewed
as being related to books rather than periodicals or other
reading materials, so the reading of books was encouraged,
but not necessarily periodicals.
children were learning to read (at primary school), they
received active encouragement to read, the mother normally
reading with or to them and, on occasion, the father. As
the children became independent readers, this active
involvement ceased for many, and the encouragement to read
books, if there was any, became more passive. Children were
encouraged to read when they had no other activity, such as
whilst travelling or prior to going to bed. Role modelling
and identification with the parent/s or siblings became more
important for the children.
Of those who
became periodical readers and consider themselves to be
non-readers, their role models in the home were periodical
readers. As reading and literacy is related to books they
were not actively encouraged to read periodicals but read
them by imitation or because they were available.
sister] passed me Red Star, Family Star, Red Letter.
And I think I got hooked on them through them being passed
on, but when they [weren’t] passed on, … , I started buying
them, ordering them, as you had to order them from the paper
studies (Hall & Coles, 1999) have found that during
adolescence periodical reading increases as book reading
decreases, and there are more periodicals available in the
Meeus (1997, p. 174) found that the “father’s behaviour
toward the adolescent is of a greater importance than the
mother’s with regard to self-concept development and the
development of peer relations” and suggested that:
possible that the role of the father in child-rearing
becomes more pronounced during adolescence. … Given the fact
that the adolescents are at the threshold of their entrance
to society, it is possible that the father in his role of
“the link to the outside world” increases in importance as a
socializing agent for this transitional period.
of the respondents’ fathers read periodicals in the home and
so may have provided a more important role model than the
mother (who read books) during this period. if Dekovic and
Meeus are correct in their suggestion that the father’s role
becomes more pronounced during adolescence.
I do not
recollect anybody reading except my dad and do not remember
any books being in the house, except an encyclopaedia that
we used to look at a lot and fight over it. … My father
encouraged me to read, he encouraged us to learn. … as I
was the one most closely associated with my dad who was an
avid reader …I can not say if he encouraged me or not,…
primary school, the predominance of periodical reading both
in the home and amongst peers and the diminution of book
reading influenced and altered the reading behaviours of
most of the respondents. They turned away from books in
favour of periodicals even if they enjoyed reading books in
primary school. Their role models outside of the school
were too strong; they needed identification both with their
family and peers, who were important reference points for
their behaviour, and the culture of their home (particularly
their father) and peers was one of periodical reading.
women who did not reject books in favour of magazines and
continued book reading from primary school through
adolescence into adulthood, the nuclear family (parents)
provided a strong culture of reading books and periodicals.
It was a culture of active involvement in book reading; by
sharing the outcomes of reading, they had role models for
book reading in the home and identified with these role
models. They internalised their role models’ reading values
and developed a self-concept of being a reader.
encouraged us to read – if we were bored she would say “why
don’t you go and read a book”, but mainly by example. It
was something we did together, we would all read a book. If
we went away, we went camping as children and we would often
sit at night and we would all read a book. Dad would be
reading the paper and we would all be reading a book
of respondents, therefore, as children internalised the
cultural values of their family and their peers regarding
reading. The reading of books to or with the children, and
the encouragement of reading, was normally undertaken by the
mother. Very few of the sample were read to by their father
on a regular basis or encouraged to read books by their
father. This is a common finding, with the mother being
responsible for the early development of reading in the
home. In addition, the choice of reading materials is
gendered; when book reading did occur in the home for these
respondents, it was normally the mothers who read books for
leisure. Fathers in the sample read newspapers and
periodicals, with very few reading books.
influence of school
respondents, expectations of the formal educational process
are related to the period in time that they attended school
and their children attended school. Changes in expectations
occurred across the twentieth century in line with changes
in the educational system and educational practices.
respondents demonstrated ambivalence toward school; no real
engagement and a divorce of school and home. “I mean you
went to school and plodded on, did what you did and went
home” (Brenda). There were no expectations of the school in
terms of future career direction, and the expectation from
the family of the older generations was to work when
schooling officially ended. “I wanted to be a nursery
nurse, but I had to get a job … Well families, in that day
and age …” (Judith). “… we were not channelled into
anything, not even at home” (Brenda). These attitudes
extended toward the reading of books, with most of the
sample reading what was expected of them “to get by” and no
more. Very few of the sample read outside of the school
environment; even if they took books home, they did not read
them following primary school. Books became a part of
school and not a part of daily life, where for many, the
periodical was the main medium read.
school, reading books was turned into work. With the
critical analysis of books, it became a functional activity
further reinforcing internalised attitudes towards reading:
the reading of books was not undertaken for leisure and
reading is purely pleasure, nothing else. I enjoy reading.
To start taking it apart, what did he mean here, what did he
mean there, I do not want to know. I just take my
interpretation, it satisfies me, and I enjoy it and that is
all I want. I think that man wrote that so that we could
enjoy it, not to take it apart to find all the hidden
meanings. If they wanted you to find hidden meanings they
would not hide them. This is why I think it is just
educationalists doing these things to make themselves look
good. They have written it for your enjoyment (Pauline).
became “work”; it had to be undertaken to pass examinations.
Therefore, the reinforcement was external—in Millard’s terms
(1998, p. 45), “there was a mismatch between pupils’
expectations of the importance of reading and its perceived
use in school.”
attitudes of the children themselves toward school and
reading in school appear to be similar across the
generations, even taking into account the changes across the
century in school practices and the beliefs of the parents.
For very few was reading for pleasure encouraged by the
school, and when it was, this appears to be due to
individual teachers rather than the system.
school a reading community is often established and the
pleasure of reading is encouraged. By secondary school this
has turned reading into work, and for many this reading is
not compatible with their personal constructs. There is a
mismatch between not only pupils’ expectations of reading in
school and its importance, but also between parents’
expectations of their children’s reading in school and the
encouragement of reading and what actually occurs. The
school is still perceived as having the main responsibility
for encouraging literacy by the parents, or at least for
supporting the parents in their home schooling of literacy.
possible to change reading habits during either late
adolescence or adulthood from being periodical readers or
non-readers to becoming book readers. For this to occur
there is normally a critical incidence involving:
individual having “more time” than usual; and
many, coming into contact with another adult who
introduced them or re-introduced them to the reading of
books. This adult would normally have been a reader
themselves and have given the respondent a book to
read. Although they could have chosen to “fill” this
time with another activity, they chose to read the book
that was given to them.
I used to go
and visit [my sister] and she would be reading, so I would
get a book and read it … I think what has happened is that
people have put books my way that I have liked reading…. I
think [my sister] really got me into reading more than I
back to reading a proper book was when I worked at … and it
was a bad season and the weather wasn’t very good and I was
on the ticket, cashier. … there was a lady worked in the
changing rooms and she used to come over, obviously we used
to get together and, with the lifeguards and that, and
chatter and that, and she was reading a book one day and I
said “Oh, what you reading?” … She said “You can borrow it
if you like when I have finished it, I’ll bring it in, cause
there are others that follow”. And she brought it in and I
read it, and it was interesting and I really got into it.
[Then] she brought me the whole [series], while we were
there that summer, cause the weather was bad. And you sit,
you know what a lido is like, you just sit with nothing to
do. I used to knit. And I sat and read… about 4 or 5
[books] and that is, I think, basically was my introduction
to reading a proper full book (Brenda).
… I first
started reading for pleasure, was before I went to college
actually, it was between time. I was in Greece and um,
because Angela had met me and Angela was the one who got me
into reading and she gave me the Tom Sharpe books and they
are the first novels that I probably read, in that I would
go and find the next one. … I was around then, yeah, it was
maybe when I was doing my A levels. It was Angela that got
me into reading, but literally by giving me books right, not
by suggesting but by giving (Joanne).
experienced a combination of spending time with a reader and
having more time to read. For some this behaviour has
continued; they will read books friends give them. One
respondent summed up her behaviour by saying, “maybe I read
to find out what these people are thinking” (Joanne). At
this point in time identification with the other person is
strong, and the sociality corollary can be used to explain
this behaviour. According to Kelly (1955, pp. 95-102), this
is the extent to which one person construes the construction
processes of another, which enables them to play a role in a
social process involving the other person. By reading, the
non-reader will be able to become involved in the reading of
the reader. For non-readers to change their behaviour there
must be some other attributes of the reader, other than
reading alone, that they respect.
respondent, it was her husband whom she identified with,
although he did not physically give her books to read.
I think, I
started reading, … when I gave up work and I used to read
when I went to bed at night. … and [my husband] used to
read, he used to read in bed. He did a lot of reading. And
we had lots of reading books about the house … I probably
started [reading in bed] as he read in bed and I found it
very relaxing, instead of just going to sleep it was one way
of relaxing and unwinding (Mary).
given books by their mother. Their change in behaviour could
be due to the psychological maturation process and the
changing relationship between mother and child.
have changed their reading habits often do not make
conscious reading decisions regarding what books they read;
they will not read unless they are physically given a book
by someone else, such as a family member or friend.
particularly buy books myself as people will pass them round
and you have a lot give[n to] you (Brenda)
I borrow, I
am given them by friends and family … So I get them from
friends, family, my partner, my daughter (Mary)
do not choose their own books tend to be irregular readers
or those who started reading books in late adolescence or
adulthood. They are not confident readers; they are
dependent on other people either for recommendations of what
to read or for being given books to read. They are
continuing their behaviour from when they started reading
books; they have not taken responsibility for choosing their
own reading materials, but have given the control of their
reading to other people. This restricts the range of books
that they read, and Catherine, in particular has recognised
I will read
a book if someone gives it to me. … I think what has
happened is that people have put books my way that I have
liked reading … [but I don’t read any other types of books
as] nobody has put them my way (Catherine).
in this respect was given to another person who looked after
their interests: “you have got to read this book, it is
quite good,” or “they know what kind of books I like.” It
is rare for many of these respondents to purchase books for
themselves, and when they contemplate it, they do not know
how to choose a book.
I am not
good at going into a bookstore and picking my own books. If
I ever do that … you could give me a gift token for £50 for
books and I probably would never use unless you take me to
the bookstore. Cause I don’t know where to start….
Sometimes I have bought books from the airport lounge
when waiting to go on holiday. I look in the bestsellers
and that is how I would choose a book. Look in the top 10,
go from 1 to six and pick the first one that looks as though
it interests me. I am intimidated by bookstores – oh I
don’t know what to read. I don’t know where to start. I
don’t remember the name of the authors of half of what I
have read. I need a chaperone …Occasionally I do buy books,
from bargain places – the Book Warehouse. I buy all kinds
of books, not necessarily novels. I may read an Oprah
recommendation, I need a recommendation. I can not shoot in
the dark. (Joanne)
that they need help selecting the books that they could be
reading. They do not remember what they have already read,
which could be due to not making a conscious decision to
read a particular book originally and could lead to
purchasing a book they have already read. They feel
intimidated by bookshops and the wide range of books; it is
difficult to differentiate between one book and another.
Clues are often used to locate books that might be of
interest, such as the “top 10 bestsellers,” which are often
on display in bookshops and other places that sell books, or
recommendations by celebrities or media book clubs. In this
case the responsibility for choosing a book is given to a
person who is not a “trusted” friend or relative.
Some of the
respondents in the sample would not read a book if one were
not given to them, but for others it is not clear whether
they would read or not should their source of books “dry
up.” If they were to purchase books, then their choice
would still probably remain restricted to those recommended
in other ways. This is not uncommon amongst the general
population, as the sales of recommended books and books in
general increase following discussion on media book clubs;
such clubs have guided the populations’ reading.
respondents in this sample, generally, reflect national
reading habits in terms of what they read and the time they
spend reading. The relationship between their variables of
age, lifestyle, and gender were congruent with national
Only five in
the sample developed reading habits in early childhood and
maintained them throughout their lifespan; four are book
readers and one doesn’t read. Nine changed their reading
habits from school into adolescence, moving from books to
periodicals, whilst the remaining five continued with their
childhood reading patterns. By this stage their reading
construct was well developed and had become part of their
self-concept, thereby becoming resistant to change.
influences on the development of the reading construct, and
hence habits, were the nuclear family and peers; the reading
culture of the family and identification with individual
members of the family and friends. School had little
influence over the formation of the reading construct or
reading habits, although a link was found between habits and
literacy skills; those with sustained book reading habits
had greater literacy skills.
Of the nine
who changed their reading habits in adolescence, seven
changed again during adulthood, showing that reading habits
are amenable to change, but there has to be a “critical
incident” for this change to occur. This critical incident
has to involve an increase in time available for reading
(i.e., an increase in unstructured or leisure time) and also
normally involves having contact with a book reader and that
book reader encouraging reading by example and, normally, by
giving the non-book-reader a book to read. Identification
with the book reader is important in influencing the
non-book-reader to read the book given to them and also in
encouraging further book reading. Even if reading behaviour
changes, the reading construct remains the same, so the
individual still thinks of herself as a non-reader.
Alternatively, if the individual has a defined dichotomy
corollary for reading, the maturation process may allow her
to move from one element to the other.
Adams-Webber, J.R. (1979). Personal
Construct Theory. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Book Marketing Limited/The Reading
Partnership. (2000). Reading the Situation: Book
Reading, Buying and Borrowing Habits in Britain.
London: Book Marketing Limited.
Marketing Limited/Arts Council England. (2005).
Expanding the Book Market: A study of reading and buying
habits in GB. Retrieved January 4, 2006, from http://www.bookmarketing.co.uk/uploads/documents/expanding_the_market_final_report.pdf.
Clark, C. & Foster, A. (2005). Children’s
and young people’s reading habits and preferences: The
who, what, why, where and when. Retrieved August 28,
2007 from http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/Research/Reading_Connects_survey.pdf.
Clark, C. & Rumbold, K. (2006).
Reading for pleasure: a research overview. Retrieved May
19, 2008, from
Datta, S. & MacDonald-Ross, M. (2002).
Reading skills and reading habits: A study of new Open
University undergraduate reservees. Open Learning,
Dekovic, M. & Meeus, W. (1997). Peer
relations in adolescence: Effects of parenting and
adolescents’ self-concept, Journal of Adolescence,
Duffy, M. (2004, July 11). The way to a
woman’s heart is through her newspaper: Maureen Duffy on
how advertisers who want to reach females are missing a
trick. The Observer Business Pages, London.
Retrieved October 8, 2008, from
Great Britain, National Statistics
Online. (2000). UK time use survey 2000.
Retrieved December 1, 2005 from
Great Britain, Department for Education
and Skills. (2003). The skills for life durvey: A
national needs and impact survey of literacy, numeracy
and ICT skills. (DfES Research Report 490). J.
Williams with S. Clemens, K. Oleinikova, and K. Tarvin
of BMRB Social Research. Retrieved March 3, 2004 from
Great Britain, National Statistics
Online. (2007). UK time use survey 2005. Retrieved
August 28, 2007, from
Hall, C. & Coles, M. (1999).
Children’s reading choices London: Routledge.
Kelly, G. A. (1955). The psychology of
personal constructs: Vol I. A theory of personality.
New York: Norton.
M. (1999). New readers in the nineteenth century: Women,
children, workers. In G.
Cavallo & R. Chartier (Eds.), A history of reading in
the West (pp. 313-344).
Translated by Lydia G
University of Massachusetts Press.
Mintel, Books – UK.
(June 2003). Mintel Reports. Nottingham Trent
University Lib., Nottingham, UK. Rerieved January 17,
2005 fromo http://reports.mintel.com.
Mintel, Women’s Magazines – UK.
(October 2004). Mintel Reports. Nottingham Trent
University Lib., Nottingham, UK. Retrieved January 17,
2005 from http://reports.mintel.com.
West, R., Stanovich, K. E. & Mitchell,
H.R. (1993). Reading in the real world and its
correlates. Reading Research Quarterly, 28(1),
Personal construct theory is a theory of personality
and motivation based on the philosophy of
constructive alternativism. “This principle asserts
that reality does not directly reveal itself to us,
but rather it is subject to as many alternative ways
of construing it as we ourselves can invent. Hence
the variety of human experience” (Adams-Webber,
1979, p. 1) From this Kelly suggests
“man-the-scientist” (1955, p. 4), whereby he is
“ever seeking to predict and control the course of
events with which he is involved. He has theories,
tests his hypotheses, and weighs experiemental
evidence.” From these acts people develop templates
(constructs) to aid their predictive behaviour
(1955, p. 12). Each individual develops coherent
systems of constructions, which provide unity in the
experience of each individual and make them unique.
Range of convenience refers to one of Kelly’s eleven
corollaries (propositions), range. “A construct is
convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of
events only. There are few constructs that are
relevant to everything, most have a focus.” (Kelly,
Each person has a hierarchical system of constructs,
with some constructs subsuming others; these
constructs are termed superordinal and the subsumed
construct becomes the subordinal (Kelly, 1955).