'The constant testing in our education system puts children off reading for pleasure'

We need to stop giving pupils follow-up tasks and tests after reading, and just allow them to enjoy books for the sheer love of reading, writes one literacy expert

Robert Smith

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I do not remember learning to read. Perhaps I always just could, or perhaps it came to me at an early age, or perhaps I enjoyed it so much that I don’t have any painful memories about it stuck in my mind.

I have some early pleasurable memories of reading. The earliest of these is of my dad and me, sat in his bed, in our pyjamas. His were chocolate brown with a yellow pocket, mine were blue striped (it was 1986). My brother had been in an accident and so my Mum was at the hospital with him. We read a book about fireworks. 

My second earliest reading memory is the night I learned to read silently. You may think it odd that someone can remember the exact moment that they learned to read silently, but mine was almost an epiphany and the memory is just as vivid 28 years later.  

I don’t really like hospitals and the 7-year-old me liked them even less. There I was – facing a few nights on the children’s ward at Whiston Hospital – ready to have my tonsils and adenoids removed. I had with me an array of colouring books and a few books to read. The ward lights had been dimmed and most parents had gone home as they were not allowed to stay. I switched on the metallic, angle-poise lamp above my bed and began to read by its soft glow, my bed encased on all sides by the stiff hospital curtains I remember that I wasn’t very far through my book when someone swept the curtains aside and said, in a whispered shout: “Shut up! You are keeping my little boy awake!” then promptly disappeared.  This "witch" appeared from nowhere, out of the darkness, down-lit by the hospital lamp – and she scared the dickens out of me.  

The joy of reading

From that point onwards I could read in my head. What a gift this was, too. It meant that no one knew whether I was awake or asleep once I had been sent to bed – and as long as I had some faint illumination, then I could read and read. And I did. I devoured anything and everything I could get my hands on. I went to Smuggler's Top with Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy. In fact, I went to many places with The Famous Five. I read World War Two in Colour, which had belonged to my dad, as had the Warlord, Hotspur and Victor annuals I found under his old bed – the one I slept in most weekends between the ages of 8 and 18-years-old at my nan’s house.

Because I could read – and read well – I enjoyed it. If I wasn’t enjoying it, I probably would have done something else. I must have been a teacher’s dream: I read avidly and wanted to read more. 

I have taught children like me: those who read everything you give them and then bring in their own books to read, discuss and share. However, not everyone is like a young Rob Smith: hungry to read and able to sate that hunger easily because my life was calm, my school was enjoyable and my home was filled with books. When I look at my own children I can see this echoing down the generations. My 8-year-old could read before he started school and my 2-year-old already chooses to "read" books for pleasure daily.

Sometimes, as teachers, we can forget that not all children have such a privileged home life. It startles me every time I read how many children claim to have no books at home. Ten per cent of children, according to The National Literacy Trust, leave primary school without ever visiting a library or owning their own book. Now this perception may be exaggerated by some of the children, but if they only have one or two books in the home, plus their school reading book – quite possibly from a boring reading scheme, if they are of lower ability – then they are, in my opinion, book-poor and will often have a deficit of cultural capital.

We, as teachers, have a responsibility to these children to ensure that they leave school as readers.  This responsibility is twofold:

  1. We need our children to be functionally literate.  They need to be able to read enough to get through life, to pass exams, to read instructions and to function in the workplace.
  2. We need to encourage and develop habits in our students which allow and encourage them to read for pleasure.  We need to nurture in them a love of books and a love of reading.


Teaching reading

It is my belief, under the current education system, that we often put children off reading early on through formal and informal testing. I believe that this affects boys more than girls, because of them often having a more competitive nature.

From an early age, most teachers share wonderful books with their class. They often read to them on the carpet as a class more than once per day, although this often diminishes as they rise through school. In fact, my first ever teaching task on my first ever placement in a school was to read a book with the class. I chose The Rainbow Fish. I remember that my task was to read the book to the children, but in addition to this, I had to formulate a number of questions to ask as we read the text and then afterwards complete a follow-up activity.

At the point when I started asking questions and giving out follow up tasks, I probably spoiled the whole experience for some of the children. Those who were perhaps struggling with comprehending the text may have found these follow up activities disengaging and a chore. On occasion, when the tasks are too difficult or strenuous, this can have a dramatic effect on some pupil’s engagement with the text.

Space for giving

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Norfolk Book Centre’s annual reading conference and this year their theme was "Reading for Pleasure". I arrived a day early for the conference as there was, as always, a pre-conference meal (they are very civilised in East Anglia). To my delight, I was seated two chairs away from my hero, the renowned writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, a wonderful, softly spoken Scouse nun-kicker with whom I have a couple of things in common – we come from the same part of the world.

We had a chat over a carvery dinner and discussed, amongst other things, my love of his movie Millions, my partner’s dislike of Millions and how Frank and the team persuaded the Queen to join in the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony. In his keynote the following day, Frank began by regaling us with some of his early childhood memories of home, school (this is where the nun kicking came in) and reading. I did not write down copious notes because I was so enthralled, but to paraphrase him:

“We make children pay for listening to us read, or reading a great book by making them do ‘stuff’ afterwards.  We need space for just giving, without the need for payback.”

He later echoed this sentiment when he said: “A book given freely unlocks doors for children.”

What could this payback that he mentioned look like?

  • Comprehension questions based upon the text that was read
  • Finding similar themes, devices and vocabulary in other texts
  • Writing a review based upon the text
  • Writing anything based upon that which has just been read
  • Restricting a child to certain books (band) until they have read enough books sufficiently well
  • Having a test which measures how well the child has been reading
  • Reporting how well – or not well – the child has been progressing in their reading
  • Depending on their responses the child receives extra reading practice to do even if they want to or not


How often do we as teachers offer reading freely without any payback. Could you offer it more often?

Back to my childhood memories…why can I remember being in bed with my dad and sharing a book about fireworks at the age of four? Because there was no "payback".

Rob Smith is the creator of the Literacy Shed and a former teacher. He tweets at @redgierob and blogs at literacyshedblog.com 

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