How (not) to get pupils reading

Tell pupils what to read, when to read it, and treat it like a competition: three sure-fire ways to put pupils off reading, writes this teacher

Callum Jacobs

Reading in school, reading in primaries, reading in secondaries, literacy, literature, how to get kids reading,

Reading for fun should be one of the easiest things to get kids to do. It’s an activity that can be done any time, anywhere, usually at zero cost, and with rewards that are boundless. Reading provides an instant escape, a respite from the darkest troubles or a release from the dreariness of everyday life. It offers guidance, therapy and maybe even a whole new way of seeing the world.

And yet so many kids at school say they hate reading. Not just dislike it, or find it boring, or that given the option they’d rather be playing Fortnite or watching Netflix – they actively hate it.

Here’s my terrible secret: when I was at school…I hated reading, too. I find it almost unbelievable now to think there was a time when I didn’t like to read. These days, if I could get away with it, that’s all I’d do. Why did I have to wait until I’d left school before I began to pick up books for pleasure?

While there have always been teachers who could engender a love of reading in their students, often simply by enthusing about their own favourite writers, all too frequently the drive for quantifiable measures of success and evidence of students’ progress forces teachers into making reading just another task to get through and another column on a spreadsheet to complete. And that can quickly turn the whole enterprise into a chore.

You must read this

There’s nothing worse than being told you have to read a certain book. I remember at school being forced to wade through novels I’d decided within the first few pages just weren’t for me. There’ll always be exceptions of course, and if it's a set text for an exam then you don't have much choice, but that aside and whenever possible, you have to let kids chose what they want to read. Let's remember what we like to read is subjective, and I want to say this loud and clear: not everyone likes Jane bloody Austen.

Don't read this

There are no bad books. OK, I’ll rephrase that: there are some atrocious books, but any book you read will teach you something, even if it's how not to write (for budding novelists, surely the most valuable lesson of all). Children regularly get told at school that a certain book is either too easy or too hard for them. I’ve seen kids having books whipped out of their hands by well-meaning but misguided school librarians, as they don’t fall within their age profile. How many of the teachers telling kids not to read a book because it's not appropriate for their age, or not sufficiently highbrow, are the ones packing Jeffrey Archer or EL James into their suitcases for summer reading? Yeah, we know you do it.

Don’t read this now

Have you ever confiscated a book from a student because they’ve been sneakily reading it when they’re supposed to be doing your worksheet on weather patterns or simultaneous equations? Give them a break. We should go out of our way to encourage them. Of course they can’t spend their whole day reading (although, would that really be so bad?), but it seems churlish to stop someone doing something so worthwhile. At least let them finish the chapter. 

It's a competition

One of the most invidious developments in schools over recent years has been the rise of formalised quizzes and points-scoring platforms for competitive readers. To begin with, the idea that you can allocate a score to a book for its literary value is nonsense, particularly when a book like The Da Vinci Code scores higher than Catcher in the Rye (as is the case with one well-known competitive reading scheme). Some kids undoubtedly love racking up points and winning prizes, but others spot this as just another way the grown-ups are trying to get them to do something they don't want to do. When you try to motivate people by external rewards, the danger is always that people won’t value the activity for its own sake.

At least until Year 10, when schools have to be a little more prescriptive, we should let the students make the decisions about what and when to read, not have someone else’s choice foisted upon them. The aim should always be to show students that reading a book, any book, is fun and rewarding and valuable, and if you can achieve that, you'll never need to force them to read again.

Callum Jacobs is a supply teacher in the UK

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