4 steps to ensure pupils read for pleasure

It’s essential we promote reading for pleasure, but it’s not easy, says Clare Sealy

Clare Sealy

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If you had any doubts about the importance of reading for pleasure, a quick look at the research would settle them instantly.

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.

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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.

So how do we do it?

1. Careful selection of texts

The books we choose to study in English lessons should not be selected primarily because children will love them. The books we study need to be slightly above the level children could read independently.

Reading lessons in primary schools 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.

2. Nurture the ‘inner reader’

Given the link between reading for pleasure and reading attainment, in addition to lessons where challenging texts are studied, children also need to have their "inner reader" nurtured.

They need immersing in a sea of stories, to learn that stories can feed the soul by making us laugh, cry, tremble and be amazed.

They need opportunities to move into that wonderful inner space where they can travel vicariously to times and places far beyond the here and now; where characters become friends and role models and where your own trials and tribulations become fused with that of the protagonist.

They need to know the thrill of desperately wanting to read on and on while at the same time never wanting the story to end.  

3. Become a book whisperer

If they are going to have the above experiences then the teacher must turn book whisperer (a phrase that I am told has its origin in the book The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller, though I have not actually read the book myself). ​

Primary teachers have two main ways they can do this. The first is to make story time sacrosanct, the second is by creating a culture where children choose to read in their own time.

Story time is not merely a nice, relaxing time at the end of a busy day – though it might be that as well – it is a crucial time for children to fall in love with books through listening to excellent stories passionately told.

The pleasurable aspect might mislead us into thinking that it lacks the rigour of ‘proper’ teaching and that, therefore, it is at the very least dispensable and probably a waste of valuable time. But let’s consider the opportunity cost of not prioritising building a culture of reading.

The OECD report goes on to explore the factors that make reading for pleasure at home – what it terms reading engagement – more likely. 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 matters 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," says the report.

Given that one in five parents does not spend any time reading with their children and over half of those surveyed spent less than an hour a week doing it, for many schools it is down to us to build that culture.

We need to help children build an emotional relationship with books 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.

Talking about the book together is important – how else will children realise that reading can be an enjoyable social activity? But we need to 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). This is about the building of spiritual and moral capital.

4. Guide children’s choices

The other key way that teachers can promote reading for pleasure is by being proactive 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 every child to enjoy reading is grounded in hard work. It involves a different kind of rigour from that involved in planning a geography lesson, for example.  

Yet behind both is a need for excellent subject knowledge. Acquiring excellent subject knowledge in children’s literature requires a rigorous commitment to read it on a regular basis.

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.

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Clare Sealy

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