I love the school holidays for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that I actually have the time to read. Over Christmas, I had the luxury of reading both Phoenix by SF Said (ahead of reading it to my class next term) and Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet (a grown-up book – something I seem to have less time to enjoy these days, but I always relish it when I do).
It got me thinking: how often do we make sure that our pupils have time to read for pleasure, both in the classroom and at home?
Reading for pleasure seems to be happening less and less, with schools under pressure to achieve results and parents squeezed for time or lacking the necessary skills or confidence in literacy to pass on a love of reading to their children.
With libraries closing, household budgets tight and electronic devices becoming the entertainment of choice, there seems little opportunity for many children to develop a lifelong love of reading that could benefit them in so many ways.
Research has found that children who read for pleasure are not only more likely to be lifelong readers, but they are also more likely to succeed both academically and socially.
As teachers, we have got to see reading as something beyond Sats and empower children to explore the multitude of worlds beyond their own world, which are available to them when they read for pleasure. To do this, we need a whole-school ethos, so here are five ways to get started in primary schools.
1. Class reading time
Ah, how fondly I remember back to those halcyon days before the curriculum became overcrowded with the subjunctive form and cohesive devices. A time when there was room in the school day to read to the children. Reading not because it ticked off an objective or set up a writing opportunity, but, well, just because!
It was a time when children had time to read, not so we could assess them against our guided reading checklists but so they could enjoy reading or, in many cases, work through a plethora of books until hopefully, eventually, they found something they enjoyed reading.
And they nearly all did in the end, didn’t they? When they could, when it wasn’t all about what might come up in the Sats or assessing their understanding of inference.
We need to try and get back to that.
And at my school, reading to the class has always remained a priority. We never needed to put it on a timetable – it has just always happened. Every class, every day, read to by the teacher for 10, 15, 20 minutes. Sometimes more. Walk into the classrooms during this time and you will see children – even the usually disconnected ones – hanging on the words of the teacher.
If it doesn’t happen naturally in your school, you can make it happen. Make it a priority and ensure everyone understands the importance of it. Put it on the timetable to be a non-negotiable that isn’t gobbled up by finishing off or tidying up or interventions – give it a set time to take place, just like assembly and hometime have their set places.
Don’t follow this book up with any "work". Just allow the children to listen and enjoy and to understand the magical power of a great story.
2. Get the local community involved
Ensure parents understand reading for pleasure and why it is important. Let them know what they can do to support this by reading with their children at bedtime or taking them to the local library. We know that not all parents will have the time or skills themselves to do this, but you might reach out to some parents and make a difference to the lives of some of the children.
Try to catch them early by promoting reading for pleasure to the parents of the youngest children in school – don’t only ask them to hear their children read as "homework" but encourage them to spend 10 minutes a day enjoying a story together. You might need to teach them the skills to do this and to recommend books to them, which can be borrowed from the local or school library.
If you can, get parents and governors involved in school. You could arrange for some to take part in an assembly or visit a class to talk about their favourite childhood books. If you are fortunate enough to have enthusiastic parent volunteers, see if any of them would be willing to assist in the running of the school library or lead a lunchtime reading group.
Other ways to show the children how important reading is across a community can include forging links with your local library or arranging for authors to visit the school. If the library is near enough to visit, get cards for every child and timetable class visits for children to take out books or take part in librarian-led workshops.
Authors visiting the school can inspire children to read new books they might not previously have considered – and engage them with writing, too.
3. Book donations
If children can see a book they have brought in or recommended on the bookshelves in school being enjoyed by their peers, it can really help them to appreciate the value of the enjoyment of books.
I recently heard of a school where, instead of bringing in cake or sweets on their birthday, the children and staff were asked to donate a book to school instead (new or secondhand).
This not only helped to boost the number of books in school, but it also made a big statement about the importance of reading (they also have some of the highest progression scores in reading in the county).
Our school PTA runs a book donation scheme through which children, parents, staff, governors and other members of the local community can donate £5 towards the cost of a new reading book. The money is regularly shared out between the classes and new books for class library areas are purchased; the donors' names are then proudly displayed on the inside of the front cover of the book they helped to fund.
4. World Book Day or other reading events
The vast majority of schools now celebrate World Book Day, but it’s important to remember that it shouldn’t be just about the children dressing up in a superhero costume that they’ve bought from the supermarket. Ask the children to bring in a book from home, one that includes their favourite book character; or if the children don’t have books at home, support them in school to select from books they have read there.
Abandon the timetable and really celebrate books that day. Children can dress up but, more importantly, ask them to come "in role" as their character. They could then work in groups, chatting as those characters, or even create a short drama to perform at an end-of-day assembly for the rest of the school.
We have done this successfully with wonderful resulting stories incorporating a diversity of characters such as Matilda, Pippi Longstocking, Wilbur the pig and Lucky from Phoneix, all combining to produce very memorable and entertaining outcomes.
Such an event can give children a real reason for understanding characters, expressing preferences, talking about books they have enjoyed and hearing about books from their peers that they might not otherwise have chosen to read. And perhaps, most importantly, it enables them to see the power of a shared love of reading.
5. A reading environment
It may seem obvious, but the school environment can really make a big impact. There are some amazing examples of reading corners and school libraries up and down the country – you only need to spend 10 minutes on Pinterest to get a flavour of what I mean.
But, however it looks, whatever theme is used, reading corners and libraries need to be accessible, welcoming places that are stocked with good-quality, appropriate books.
In fact, why stop at books? If the school budget allows, subscribe to magazines and newspapers such as The Week, First News, Aquila, NGKids or Whizz Pop Bang and demonstrate to the children that reading isn’t just about books.
See yourself as part of the environment as well. Teachers and other staff can promote reading for pleasure simply by having a copy of a book or magazine they are reading on their desk and by being ready to discuss it with the children if they ask what you are reading. And remember to discuss the books the children are reading with them in return.
Like any change, promoting reading for pleasure can take time to become embedded, but by being passionate about it yourself, getting all staff and other members of the community on board and by clearly communicating the importance of reading for pleasure, the children in your school could become lifelong readers with a whole new world of new worlds and people for them to enjoy exploring.
And, if you’re still not convinced that it’s an amazing thing to do, their results could improve, too.
Rachel Lopiccolo is Year 5 teacher and English and history subject leader at Waddington and West Bradford CE Primary School, Lancashire
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