Since reading for pleasure was mandated in the national curriculum, its profile has risen exponentially. This is assuredly good news, and many schools are seeking ways to demonstrate their commitment to this agenda. But as the pressure to raise reading scores persists, there is surely a danger that schools will only find the time to pay lip service to reading for pleasure, constructing it as little more than an act of institutional window dressing in our highly performative culture.
The requirement that children should be ‘taught to find pleasure in reading’ appears to have prompted many schools to refurbish/reclaim their libraries and buy new books. Some have even purchased double decker buses, tents, tree houses and caravans to deck out as school libraries, as well as garden sheds, boats, baths and sofas to enrich classroom reading areas. These physical spaces overtly indicate to parents, governors, Ofsted inspectors and the children that the school values reading, but is this institutional demonstration enough?
In other ways too, with the best of intentions, schools can be sucked into performing reading for pleasure. Institution-wide competitions exist aplenty, including for example: extravagant dressing-up competitions on World Book Day, and competitions to read books for the school. There are also class awards (for example Reader of the Week), and inter-class competitions such as the number of books reviewed each month. In one school I know the children’s home-reading records are turned into class percentages each week and the winning class, announced in assembly, is rewarded with extra break time. Such competitions act as extrinsic motivators – encouraging children to read for recognition, for reward, for their parents, their teachers and/or the school, but not perhaps for themselves. Yet we know that reading for pleasure is more closely associated with intrinsic motivation and some research suggests extrinsic motivation has a detrimental effect on children’s comprehension.
Physically attractive reading environments can be enticing to children and are part of the reading for pleasure pedagogy described by the UKLA Teachers as Readers study, alongside reading aloud, own reading time, and informal book talk. However their ability to influence the dispositions and engagement of young readers cannot be guaranteed. Much will depend on the quality and diversity of the texts available, the degree of choice and agency offered, and the time set aside for informal talk and interaction. Many classrooms, responding to children’s 21st century reading preferences and practices, now have comics, magazines, newspapers and digital books readily available. Some schools also annually order the children’s literature shortlisted for the UKLA Children’s Book Awards or the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards to ensure new books are encountered by staff and children. Such texts can unquestionably make a difference, as can the nature of the physical space, but if the reading environment is not inherently social, reciprocal and interactive, then the cost and labour involved in showcasing the school’s commitment to reading surely has to be questioned.
How reading spaces are used, who owns them, who made them and who has access to them, (when and how frequently), are all questions worth asking and monitoring over time. The kinds of opportunities these spaces afford for conversations and book recommendations are also worth documenting. It is all too easy to assume reading environments represent an institutional ‘good’ and are being fully used, but the intense pressure of the standards agenda tends to reduce the time teachers feel they can set aside for children’s volitional reading practices.
In recent research undertaken in areas of social and economic disadvantage, in schools renowned locally for their work on reading for pleasure, the OU team found that the class reading areas and the sometimes fabulous school libraries were, in all but one of the four schools, simply used as text repositories. While children did borrow books from their class reading areas, predominantly they were used for ‘time out’ and as additional work spaces. No text related talk was heard in them. No browsing or relaxed reading was observed within them. Furthermore, the displays in these areas tended to represent reading as a technical skill; showcasing comprehension strategies and reading domains, and displaying proficiency ladders denoting the children’s ‘abilities’ as readers.
In other classrooms and schools, reading displays may be interactive, profiling particular texts, authors, genres, questions, artefacts and children’s work, all of which can serve to trigger text talk. Displays that feature personal, home and community aspects of reading (e.g. through photos of ‘who reads at home, where and what we read at home’) can also enrich reading areas and libraries. These carry significant messages about actual readers, not reading, and position children, teachers, teaching assistants and parents as members of the community of readers.
To be effective, reading environments need to be much more than physically appealing. Critically they need to be socially inviting, foregrounding the role of dialogue, and offering a myriad of opportunities to talk about texts, to hear books read aloud, to develop class ‘texts in common’ and to read alone and with others. As the Cambridge Primary Review final report highlighted six years ago, ‘talking must be part of reading and writing rather than an optional extra’ (p. 269). Indeed reading, like learning, is a social and collaborative act of participation, as well as an individual one, a point which Goswami also underscores in the CPRT research review into Children’s Cognitive Development and Learning.
In order to avoid reading for pleasure becoming little more than a colourful visual laid across the landscape of schools, we must ensure the social environment receives more attention, but not through more high profile competitions. Talking about texts, their possible meanings and interpretations, and informal conversations about reading and oneself as a reader deserve to be placed at the very heart of the reading curriculum. Such talk brings the landscape to life and helps to build communities of engaged readers.