If you’ve ever felt a pang of disappointment that some (and maybe even many) of the children in your class are not turning to books with enthusiasm and engagement, despite your best efforts at providing book-weeks, author events, booktalk sessions and a selection of ‘good’ titles in your class library, then I urge you to read on now.
A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Cambridge on the subject of children reading for pleasure. One of the keynote speakers was Teresa Cremin, Professor of Education (literacy) at the Open University. She is also one of the co-authors of the book ‘Building Communities of Engaged Readers’. In a recent post on this website, my colleague and I described aspects of our school-based practice which we believe encourage and maintain a classroom culture of reading for pleasure. As someone who, like many others, has always read for pleasure, I am a passionate advocate for helping all children to experience the gains and satisfactions of such a brilliant resource. Since reading the book and attending the conference, I realise that, while our own practice is very much affirmed by current thinking about reading for pleasure, there is more to consider and act upon than I have been aware of.
National Curriculum And Reading
In 2013, the National Curriculum (for the first time in its history) required that children be taught to develop pleasure in reading. Although ‘enticed’ or ‘invited’ would have been better word choices than ‘taught’, this requirement was and is encouraging, since it established that reading for pleasure was no longer to be viewed simply as a desirable spin-off from reading instruction, a kind of optional extra. What was the rationale behind this official foregrounding of a hitherto ignored aspect of reading?
What Does The Research Say?
Research has shown that reading for pleasure – the desire and the will to read – carries significant personal and affective benefits for a child reader in terms of, for example:
- fostering empathy,
- engaging the emotions,
- expanding the imagination,
- providing the means of a temporary escape,
- widening knowledge,
- helping the child negotiate an identity and a place in the world (Alexander, 2010).
These are arguably benefits for society in general. There are academic gains too. Children who read with engagement will read more, will absorb models for writing, develop a wider vocabulary and show improvements in spelling. (Sullivan and Brown, 2013; Cox and Guthrie, 2001.) However, research has also shown there to have been a definite decline in reading for pleasure in recent years among both primary and secondary aged children (Twist et al,2012). This, as the book’s authors rightly say, is a cause for national (and international) concern. Something isn’t working in schools.
What I want to do in this article is to outline a primary school project set up by UKLA (United Kingdom Literacy Association) a few years ago, from which grew a distinct Reading for Pleasure pedagogy, and then to list some practical strategies which form part of this pedagogy. The project, Teachers As Readers, aimed firstly to survey the participating teachers’ knowledge and use of children’s literature in the classroom and to find ways of enhancing this knowledge and its implementation. The most striking part of the project was the focus on the concept of Reading Teachers, defined as ‘teachers who read and readers who teach’ (Commeyras, Bisplinghoff and Olson, 2003).
The Most Important Paragraph Of All
Developing as a Reading Teacher fundamentally involves having a deep knowledge of yourself as a reader and of your own reading history, a commitment to reading children’s literature, together with knowing the children in your class as readers, knowing their informal reading practices both in and out of school, and acknowledging the diversity in what, how, and how much they choose to read. What is so exciting and innovative (and so connected to being human) about this concept is that, as the project showed, new and highly productive relationships between teachers and children can be forged from it, which impact positively on children’s attitudes to and pleasure in reading. If teachers are willing to position themselves as fellow-readers, share their own reading histories and experiences, and invite the children to share their everyday encounters with reading and their perceptions of themselves as readers, then it is possible for a truly reciprocal relationship to emerge, and a reciprocal reading community to be created where reading is seen as a pleasurable social practice, and talking about reading becomes endemic to the life of the classroom.
(I take this opportunity to mention that my colleague and I have been very concerned to create a similarly reciprocal community of writers in our classroom, through everyone sharing and developing their own writing processes as part of on-going writer to writer conversations.)
Children Choosing Their Own Books To Read
The book shows how it is possible to translate the National Curriculum requirement into a thoughtful and sympathetic Reading for Pleasure pedagogy. The teacher’s identity shift from ‘arbiter’ of reading to Reading Teacher allows other transformations to take place. For example, knowing children’s reading preferences both in and out of school and then using this knowledge to provide a wide range of different kinds of texts in class libraries means that teachers are validating and respecting children’s reading choices. Children can then be given the agency to be self-selectors of their own independent reading. Schools following the pedagogy might want to consider the possibility of dispensing with the practice of colour-coding children’s books (at least in their class libraries). Children very quickly learn to do what they need to do – be autonomously discriminating in their choices. The authors refer to studies (Krashen (1993), Sanacore (1999) & Gambrell,1996) which show that self-selection enhances motivation as readers, and point out that agency and motivation are crucial in fostering reading for pleasure. Of course, children still need advice and recommendations from their teachers. Our personal experience is that, because our children see us as Reading Teachers, they trust us and will at least try out suggested texts.
The question of agency and independence has implications for writing too. Allowing children to choose their own topics both increases motivation and makes clear links between reading and writing, since children will often draw on their personal reading to generate ideas for written pieces. In our class, the children have ‘Writing Tricks Books’, in which they can ‘magpie’ from their reading: words, phrases, and figurative language which might be helpful in describing setting or building up character.
Children Talking About Books!
One of the most important and transformative outcomes of the pedagogy to impact on reading for pleasure is the emergence, described in the book, of ‘inside-text talk’. During the project the researchers observed apparently naturally occurring, ‘close’ conversations about reading which were taking place anywhere, any time, essentially informal, child-led, inclusive, and different from, though complementary to, the more engineered and teacher-led ‘booktalk’ sessions which are often the only classroom discussions about reading. Rich examples of this kind of talk are given in the book. The project teachers observed that when inside-text talk was going on, children were asking more questions, and that the questions were ‘more probing, demanding much more than simple recall of facts.’ Teachers also saw the value of talk for the authentic assessment of reading, and for the ways in which it could facilitate collective and individual meaning-making.
If book talk is a core element of a community of readers, so is the social practice of a teacher reading aloud to the class – sharing poems, picture books, short stories and whole novels. Far from being simply a pleasant way to finish the day or the week, reading aloud is seen as a significant pedagogical activity with strong contributions to make to a climate of reading for pleasure. Through being read to regularly, children’s knowledge of what is out there to be enjoyed widens. If it is read well, they will absorb the shapes, language, sounds and rhythms of the text. However, while this has obvious implications for writing, it is essential that children understand that hearing a text read aloud has pleasure at its heart, and that the text is not being used as a tool for another, narrower purpose, such as the teaching of grammar or as a future writing assignment. One of the project teachers had this to say, and you can hear the feeling of liberation in her words:
‘I now read to the class without thinking ‘I could do this with it or I could do that with it’ and I think the children sit back and think ‘I can just enjoy this’…..that had been a big struggle – thinking how many boxes can I tick, what objectives can I cover and you actually then lose the impact of….the book. You know, just enjoy it for a book and a good story and a good emotional journey.’
As the authors acknowledge, there is more work to be done, particularly in the area of parental involvement. I have appended a few of the strategies relating to parents which the book refers to and which were discussed at the conference. Again, the emphasis is on establishing reciprocity in reader relationships between families, parents and schools.
There can be no doubt that implementing a reading for pleasure pedagogy offers huge gains in terms of creating communities of interested, engaged and enthusiastic readers. I conclude with a final word about test scores. In one of the project schools, teachers reported that over the academic year every child showed improvement in reading, and the scores of more than 50% of the children in the the two classes increased by three sub-levels or more. We are finding a similar trend in our own class. The following list of strategies and practices related to the pedagogy can be implemented in any classroom if teachers are personally and professionally committed to careful, systematic and consistent planning.
Which Ones Do You Think You Do?
- Widen your own reading of children’s literature; consult published booklists and review magazines.
- Allow more daily DEAR time.
- Have a class library with a wide range of texts.
- Allow the free passage of home texts to school and school texts being allowed to go home.
- Have child-led booklists of recommendations, and book displays with clear star ratings.
- Share book reviews with other schools.
- Connect with the local library.
- Read aloud on a regular basis.
- Ask children to write regular ‘reading letters’ to the teacher in their home-school reading record books. These require a brief answer.
- Have Daniel Pennac’s ‘Rights of the Reader’ understood and displayed in the classroom.
- Keep a record of children’s reading choices.
- Invite teachers, children and parents to create a personal River of Reading collage. Draw, stick on/write about anything you have read over a long or short period of time. Share in class.
- Invite parents into the school or class library at the end of the day, to chat or read with children. Value their personal contributions without making them feel intimidated! This could develop into a reading club or group.
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- Alexander, R., (2010) Children, Their World & Their Education London:Routledge
- Commeyras, M., Bisplinghoff, B.S., Olson, J., (2003) Teachers as Readers: Perspectives on the importance of reading in teachers’ classrooms and lives Newwark, NJ: International Reading Association
- Cox. K., Guthrie, J.T., (2001) Motivational and cognitive contributions to students amount of reading In Contemporary educational psychology 26(1), 116-131
- Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Collins, F., Powell, S., Safford, K., (2014) Building Communities Of Engaged Readers London: Routledge
- Gambrell, L., (1996) Creating classroom cultures that foster reading motivation In The Reading Teacher 50, 14-
- Krashen, S., (2004) The power of reading: insights from research Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
- Sanacore, J., (1999) Encouraging children to make choices about their literacy learning In Intervention in school and clinic 35, 38-42
- Sullivan, A., Brown, M., (2013) Social inequalities in cognitive sores arge 16: The role of reading In CLS Working Paper London: Centre for longitudinal studies
- Twist, L., Sizmur, J., Barrlett, S., Lynn, L., (2012) PIRLS 2011 Reading Achievement in England Research Brief London: DFE