Reading for pleasure: a different kind of rigour.

It’s World Book day in 4 days’ time. A colleague is incensed that at her 4 year old’s school, the theme is Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Era whilst on Twitter there’s an amusing thread of suggestions after an exasperated parent shared that at her child’s school, the theme was the Bible. I once caused similar consternation by having a non-fiction theme one year – come dressed as the water cycle or lava for example. When my own children were that age, I would thank God each year for Harry Potter – easiest costume in the world. I never dress up – though quite a few of the staff do – if asked I say I am Miss Trunchball.

The dressing up aspect of WBD has taken on a weird life all of its own, joining the ranks of nativity plays, sports days and school photographs, one of those totemic, quasi-compulsory folk education things which put a primary head teacher at risk of being lynched if cancelled.  I’m sort of agnostic about the concept of WBD itself.  Having a day that particularly  focused on books and reading is quite a good idea (leaving aside dressing up) I suppose, though this year we are doing the 100 million minute challenge so having more of a Book Week than a day, which I think might make it less tokenistic. We’ll see.

I presume it is blatantly obvious that WBD by itself is not an effective strategy in encouraging children to read for pleasure in their own time.  As an icing on the cake celebration event, it’s all well and good, but no one gets to love reading because they came to school dressed as batman and coloured in a bookmark. Having a visiting author can help a bit – though why do this during WBD week?  But if you are really serious about promoting reading for pleasure, or RfP as the cool cats now call it, you need something altogether more systematic.

That word ‘pleasure’ though, is a bit awkward, especially for those of us of more traditionalist hue. Reading for rigour is more our sort of thing. Or reading for cultural capital.  At the very least, reading for Serious Learning Purposes.  Preferably Ibsen.  So let’s remind ourselves of what research says about reading for pleasure and what that might imply for what we do in school.

The OECD report into reading in 2002 found that reading enjoyment is even more predictive of educational success than familial socio-economic status. The difference in reading ability between a child who reads for pleasure for 30 minutes a day and those who never read was more than a year.  This government report from 2012 drew similar conclusions. The link between reading for pleasure and reading proficiency is a correlation. The research does not, cannot, join the dots and prove that the one is causative of the other.  But given the wealth of evidence of close correlation, it is a fairly safe bet that there are few things more likely to engender educational success than making sure that the children we teach enjoy reading and choose to do so independently.

Sometimes this gets interpreted as meaning that the books we read in reading lessons should be specifically geared towards ensuring children love them.  That’s not how I see it.  The books we use in reading lessons should be chosen because they are slightly above the level that children could read on their own.  This might be because the vocabulary and syntax are demanding, or it might be because while the vocabulary and syntax are quite straightforward the structural complexity is demanding (for example, as in Holes). Reading lessons are precursors to English literature lessons at secondary school and are about exposing children to literature most probably would not choose for themselves. They are about the teacher sharing their subject expertise and widening experiences. We hope, of course, that children grow to love these books and we will try and choose the very best examples that are both challenging and great stories or poems. But we do not select ‘for pleasure’ in the first instance.

However, the joy of primary school teaching, and one reason why I am less enthusiastic than some about moving too much in the direction of specialist teachers, is that you are not just their English teacher. Among many different roles, academic and pastoral, the class teacher must see one of their most important duties as that of book whisperer ‘awakening the inner reader of every child.’ Given the link between reading for pleasure and reading attainment, this should not be some optional extra, some nicety, but a (the?) core purpose of every primary  class teacher. The two main strategies teachers should use for this are  reading aloud – usually during the end of day class story – and the careful, skilful encouragement of reading at home.

Yet stressing story time as a vital tool in school improvement may seem a bit…soft.  ‘Is Clare having a funny progressive turn?’ some may ask. Because story time (which incidentally does not necessarily need to happen at the end of the day) does not require planning or success criteria or assessment, because first and foremost it is about enjoying a lovely book together, this can mislead us into thinking that it’s a bit of a cop out, that it lacks the rigour of ‘proper’ teaching and that therefore it is at the very least dispensable and possibly a waste of time.

This is seriously mistaken.  The OECD report goes on to explore the factors that make reading for pleasure at home – what it terms reading engagement – more likely.  And socio-economic factors are not the main determiners.  What really makes the difference is whether or not the family has a culture of valuing reading and talking about cultural maters and doing cultural things.

‘These associations are about twice as strong as between engagement and parental education or occupational status.  Thus the most important set of home disadvantages for schools to overcome in getting students to develop positive reading habits and attitudes are not socio-economic but cultural in character.’  p17 OECD 2002

Given that one in five parents do not spend any time reading with their children and over half of those surveyed spent less than an hour a week, it’s down to us to build that culture. Of course we can try and work with parents too, but that’s got to be on top of introducing children to the wonderful world of books at school. We need to help children build an emotional relationship with books. (See this wonderful project that helps do this in the Early Years) and that means trying to replicate, as far as one can in a classroom with 30 children, the experience of snuggling up with a trusted adult and a wonderful book.  The snuggling is probably going to be metaphorical, but story time needs to try and emulate at least some of the intimacy and bonding that goes on when a child shares a book with their parent at bed time.  Talking about the book together is important – how else will children realise that reading can be an enjoyable social activity? But make sure this does not turn into another literacy lesson.  Reading aloud should not be linked to other ‘work’.  We need ‘to recognise the affective impact of reading to ‘reassure, to entertain, to bond, to inform or explain, to arouse curiosity, to inspire’ (Trelease, 2013:04)

The other key way that teachers can promote RfP is by being very active in helping children choose what they take home to read. Children need guidance with this; they need us to recommend books for them and for these recommendations to be based on knowledge of the child and what makes them tick allied with our own knowledge of children’s books.  Being the sort of teacher who can inspire all the children, even the hard cases, to enjoy reading, is grounded in hard work.  It involves a different kind of rigour from that involved in planning a science lesson for example.  Yet behind both is a need for excellent subject knowledge.  It’s a different kind of work from that required to plan, teach and assess lessons, but acquiring excellent subject knowledge in children’s literature requires a rigorous commitment to read it on a regular basis. I’d suggest that unless a KS2 teacher is reading at least one children’s novel every couple of weeks or so, they are not giving the development of their subject knowledge the attention in warrants.  Developing excellence in being able to promote reading for pleasure is just as grounded in hard work and developing requisite subject knowledge as any other aspect of developing one’s professional repertoire.

In order to help class teachers guide their children’s reading in a more personalised way, we have moved a fair amount of the reading stock out of the library and into classrooms.  The selection in the library was overwhelming for most teachers, let alone the children. So now each class has a carefully curated selection of books that each teacher is committed to getting to know (over time, as far as possible).  (Read this blog for how a senior leader without his own class also does this).  We’ve used a disaggregated INSET day to give teachers a head start on this.

And if we are really serious about promoting reading for pleasure, not because it’s nice – although of course it is – but because it’s important, then we need to put our money where our mouths are and devote curriculum time to reading for pleasure.  So this means time where children can read the books they have chosen (albeit with careful guidance from their wonderfully knowledgeable teacher) rather than the book they are reading in their reading lesson. What is more *trigger warning* – potentially ‘progressive-type’ advice ahead – these sessions should try and emulate, as far as possible, the sort of environment one inhabits when we read for pleasure ourselves.  We probably don’t read sitting bolt upright at a desk when we are reading for pleasure at home.  While sofas-for-all and cappuccinos are probably not viable in your average class room, we might run to the odd cushion and relax the usual expectation to SLANT. In fact, perhaps children should SLOUCH (Some Lie On oUr Carpet Happily? – yes I know it’s weak, tweet me a better one).  What is more, these sessions should not be silent. Children should be actually encouraged to read together, to talk together about what they are reading.  You know you have grown a vibrant reading for pleasure culture when children make spontaneous reading recommendations to one another and to you.  When there is a waiting list for class favourites, but friends recommend alternatives while they wait. We have given over two reading lessons a week to independent reading sessions like this.  Which sounds stingy but feels daringly decadent.

Good luck with your World Book Day endeavours. The latest weather forecast in my neck of the woods is for snow – so maybe we will all be closed anyway? Even more reason to make sure they have a good book to read at home!


Reading for pleasure: a different kind of rigour.