How I got reluctant readers to love books

Reading for pleasure has huge benefits – but how can we inspire a love of books if a pupil refuses to pick one up? Nicola Mansfield-Niemi says that moving beyond a deficit model of reading barriers is key
11th September 2020, 12:01am
How I Got Reluctant Readers To Love Books


How I got reluctant readers to love books

How much reading did your class do over lockdown? The likely answer for some of your pupils is: not as much as you would have liked.

The temptation is to look at barriers to reading as an explanation: literacy challenges, no access to books, a lack of assistance at home. But, actually, sometimes a child can struggle with none of those things and still not read as much as they perhaps should. Motivation to read is more complex than simply having the right tools.

So how can you get your pupils into a habit of reading again now that they are back to some semblance of normality? We caught up with Nicola Mansfield-Niemi, who ran a project that targeted her most reluctant readers. Her findings may give you some clues as to the way forward.

Tes: Reading is central to early primary teaching, and yet some children are not that keen to pick up a book…

Nicola Mansfield-Niemi: Unfortunately, this can be the case. When I became subject leader, my school had good reading data and clear processes in place to support children who found decoding and comprehension hard. We were successful at developing children who could read, but, like some other schools, we had a problem with children not reading of their own volition.

This is important for schools to identify. Reading for pleasure has been linked to a range of positive outcomes for children - and it makes sense that the wider you read, the more knowledge you can hoover up.

So I asked staff to think of children who were never excited to choose their own book in the library. The replies detailed a group of children for whom the span of attainment data was astounding - reading by choice was clearly not an ability issue.

Is it common for good readers to have poor motivation for reading?

Absolutely. Just because children can read and analyse a text, that doesn’t mean they enjoy it. They have the forensic skills to apply their understanding, but they see reading simply as a school activity, not as an entertainment choice. One of the most painful conversations I’ve had was with an extremely good reader who told me that there was no book written that was as good as a movie. I think my heart broke!

How did you target these reluctant readers?

Initially, we didn’t target reluctant readers. We targeted all children and their reading habits. I wanted children to love reading, and I had this idealistic notion that because we said something was wonderful, they’d believe it. Some did - we worked hard to raise the profile of reading. Teachers were role models, reading their own books in class and sharing their enjoyment. But it wasn’t enough.

So what did you do next?

We pushed it further by giving reading a higher status and making sure that we made books exciting by training staff to read aloud really well. We changed the timetable, giving over 25 per cent of lesson time to reading for pleasure and talking about books. It worked - this led us to really create a buzz and excitement with a lot of children. But, unfortunately, a significant group of children were still immune to our efforts.

Do you think it is viable to get every child engaged in reading for pleasure?

I certainly think we need to try. That is why we looked again at this point to see what else there was we could do. The number of children still reluctant to read was quite high: about 20 per cent of each class and still a spread of abilities.

So I wondered if we needed to be better advocates for the books aimed at these age groups: how much teacher knowledge was there of the texts available and could we expand the horizons of pupils so they had a better chance of finding a book they loved?

It is easy to fall back on old classics or the popular books of the moment. But could we find a book that excited every child?

There was certainly room for improvement. We worked hard to give teachers time to read children’s books and to expose them to a broader selection of titles. We fundraised, bought new books for the library and then opened this up for parents after school so they could get involved, too.

This was about providing choice. I then needed to provide guidance.

I am very lucky in that I was given the time to speak extensively with each child. I tried to get to know them as a reader and also them as a person: what excited them? What interested them? What were their passions? And then we looked to find a book that we thought might be the one for them.

Some of the children didn’t want to let me in, but slowly, with perseverance and patience, it worked. I was able to make a personal recommendation, give them the freedom to say it was rubbish, and to try again. It was just between us, no high stakes.

Did it work?

For the most part, yes. We managed to shift reading from being a subject that children had to do at school to something they could own away from the classroom.

I am immensely proud of the fact that it takes me an age to walk down corridors because pupils are stopping me to ask what book I am reading, and they want to tell me what book they are reading and all the things they love about that book.

This was not a quick process, presumably?

No, it takes a huge amount of repeated effort for this not to be a fad and to ensure that children know you mean what you say. You need to give this a lot of time. We went through so many books, trying to find each reader “their book”.

Unfortunately, we could not get everyone.

What is the plan for these children?

I am still getting to know some children and their reading identities. Also, children’s tastes change and develop, so we need to use our knowledge of books and of each pupil to be able to point them in the next direction so they don’t lose their passion.

It’s about continuing the conversation and modelling enjoyment. If we love books, we model loving books, we give reading books importance and time in the curriculum and we understand that children need to find the book that they love, then you have a good chance of getting the majority of your pupils reading for pleasure. And that will make a huge difference not just in school but in every aspect of their lives.

Nicola Mansfield-Niemi is an assistant headteacher at primary school in Milton Keynes

This article originally appeared in the 11 September 2020 issue under the headline “How I got reluctant readers to love books”

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