What has choosing to read for enjoyment and leisure got to do with education, especially education outside of primary schools?
A lot, I believe. And not only is it important, but I also believe there is a lot we in post-16 education can learn from our primary colleagues. There are countless research studies that inform us of the benefits of reading for pleasure, including academic success. The Book Trust reports that children who enjoy reading are likely to better at school.
But what of post-compulsory students? Can reading for pleasure improve senior-school, FE and adult education students’ academic achievement? My own action research has shown me that it can. I appreciate it was a small study, but I found that those who engage in reading and writing activities in their own, everyday lives make better and further progress in their academic setting.
If you stop to think about it, it is a fairly logical conclusion. Genevieve Clarke, from the Reading Agency, points out: “In other fields we accept the notion of ‘practice makes perfect’ without question; a musician has to spend hours with their instrument before a performance.” And, she says, even better if “they derive some pleasure from the activity and feel motivated to continue it."
Making time for reading
There appears to be a revolution taking place in England’s primary schools. Hitting back against a punitive literacy curriculum, many primary school teachers and leaders are once again making time for reading for pleasure.
The United Kingdom Literacy Association and the Open University’s wonderful research project, Teachers as Readers, examining children’s and teachers’ reading lives, establishes effective ways to support and encourage reading for pleasure. The research findings have identified clear changes and improvements that can be made in pedagogy.
This includes the concept of Reading Teachers, with a capital R and T: teachers who read and readers who teach. I have incorporated this into my own practice, recognising the role model I am to my own students. I talk about the books that I am reading and the books I have read. I make recommendations. I’ve dabbled with audiobooks, as they are popular with my students, so I can also experience books in this way. Most of all, I’ve listened to my students when they’ve suggested books to me, and made sure I make time to read them so I can show value in their views and suggestions.
Talking about books and reading is infectious. I know it’s something many of us are doing all the time, in the staffroom, with our peers, with our families, and with our friends in reading groups. Why don’t we extend that into the classroom? I think about my most inspirational teacher and I’m sure there’s no coincidence that he was someone who would say to me: “I know a book I think you might enjoy…”
Building communities of readers
The Open University’s Teresa Cremin, whose research interests include teachers’ literate identities and practices, suggests: “At whatever age, reading is a social practice, one supported by other readers who help to sustain and stretch our engagement.
"When we offer our views and recommendations and engage in informal book chat, we are supporting each other as readers and building connections and community. Time and space for such significant book blether is essential.”
Other ideas include making space for reading for pleasure, and building reciprocal and interactive communities of readers. I appreciate that is far more possible in my literacy classroom than it is in my science colleagues’ classrooms, but there are many ways to promote this within our school and college settings.
For example, science (and other) leaders can display what they are reading on their doors. Cremin says: “I’ve seen this and it was very effective as the diverse range of fiction and non-fiction prompted teenagers and young people to talk to their teachers about the texts displayed, as well as others.”
Creating role models
In my own setting, some my students have recently formed their own reading group. We’ve talked about the value of reading not just for ourselves, not just as students, but as role models to those of us who are parents.
Our college library runs the Reading Agency’s Reading Ahead programme, a six-book reading challenge for adults which builds on the success of its summer reading challenge for primary-aged children. Many students, especially literacy and Esol (English for speakers of other languages) students, sign up and receive a diary to record their “reads”. If this sounds too intimidating for some of your students, there’s no need to worry. The “reads” don’t have to be hefty novels, but can be poems, articles, graphic novels. Try inviting your librarian and their expertise into your classroom, as I’m sure there will be something that appeals to your students.
Inspirational adult literacy projects
There are other wonderful reading projects for young people and adults based out in our communities that students and their teachers can get involved with. With public libraries under severe pressure, there are opportunities to support and promote libraries – a media studies project perhaps?
There are also many literary festivals all over the country, often with free events, that can be promoted. Some of the festivals then allow further work promoting reading (and writing) for pleasure. Local to me, there is the wonderful Stratford Literary Festival that runs a project helping prisoners write bedtime stories for their children, “because stories help families stay connected”.
If you aren’t yet convinced, it’s worth bearing in mind that the positive impact of reading for pleasure isn’t just academic success.
The Reading Agency’s work on reading outcomes has found that the benefits of reading for pleasure are far larger and greater than we might assume when we consider reading just through an educational lens. These include obvious outcomes, such as increased confidence, enjoyment and escapism, but also wider and deeper-felt outcomes, such as “increased understanding of self and social identities, empathy, knowledge of cultures, relatedness, community cohesion and increasing social capital” – and even combatting loneliness.
Furthermore, the National Literacy Trust reports that those who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of wellbeing. These benefits don’t just have an impact in terms of individuals either, but a wider positive impact on culture, society and economics.
Whether you engage with all of these programmes or none of them, I believe the most important message is to know that all of us, no matter our subject or age group, can develop our own pedagogy to promote reading for pleasure.
Kerry Scattergood is an adult literacy specialist and functional skills English tutor at a college in the West Midlands