Having worked with a few schools recently on reading for pleasure, I’m beginning to wonder whether its inclusion in the national curriculum is a mixed blessing. As one teacher explained it, ‘We’ve got to do it now haven’t we? Make them read for pleasure – make them love literature’. Another observed she’d re-established SQUIRT (Sustained, Quiet, Uninterrupted, Individualised Reading Time) in her classroom and renamed it SQUIRP (Sustained, Quiet, Uninterrupted, Individualised Reading for Pleasure). But we cannot require children to read with or for pleasure, nor can we oblige them to engage positively in words and worlds. We can, however, invite and entice children to find enjoyment in reading, share our own pleasures (and dissatisfactions) as readers, and work to build communities of engaged readers.
In any case reading time doesn’t necessarily need to be a silent or solitary activity. What of sharing a Simpsons Comic with a friend, pouring over the visuals in the National Geographic Kids or debating a rugby review in First News? What of reading poetry in the online Poetry Archive and wanting to voice it aloud and drum the beat? Reading, like learning, is socially mediated, as Usha Goswami reminded us in the recent CPRT report on Children’s Cognitive Development and Learning, it is a social and collaborative act of participation, as well as an individual one. In order to nurture children’s enjoyment teachers need to build communities of engaged readers who can and do choose to read, and create rich and inventive reading environments – both physically and socially – like those at Fulbridge Academy (CPRT Alliance School) for instance.
In the glaring absence of attention to digital texts in the national curriculum, there is a real danger that the profession will equate reading for pleasure with reading fiction, thus reifying this albeit highly potent form. If the profession becomes book-bound, this is likely to hold back the development of children’s wider reading repertoires and may reduce the potential for pleasurable engagement in reading. As the EU Expert Panel on Literacy states:
There should not be a hierarchical ranking of reading material. Books, comic books, newspapers, magazines and online reading materials are equally valid and important entry points to reading for children and adults alike. …Books and other printed texts are important. But in recognition of the digital opportunities, people should be encouraged to read what they enjoy reading, in whatever format is most pleasurable and convenient for them.
Is the profession failing to recognise and build upon the every day reading practices and preferences of the young? Driven by their personal interests and popular culture children read a wide range of texts, in print and on-line, at home and in school, but they may not recognise this as reading. School reading books, assigned to readers in various ways through colour-coding and/or graded and levelled schemes, represent only a small part of their reading diet. Perhaps through undertaking 24-Hour Reads (where children and teachers record everything they read over 24 hours and make posters/ scrap books/diary entries to demonstrate this), practitioners may begin to credit this diversity and widen the range of material that is welcomed in their classrooms. This idea was one of many developed by the creative practitioners in UKLA’s Teachers as Readers project. Through their involvement in such activities, the teachers began to reconceptualise reading in the 21st century and question what counts as reading in school. In this study 43 teachers from five local authorities engaged in considerable reflection on their own as well as children’s reading practices and preferences, and some developed as ‘Reading Teachers: teachers who read and readers who teach’. These teachers made more of a difference to children’s attitudes and enjoyment in reading.
In nurturing young readers and learners, volition and agency are crucial. Adult readers exercise their rights daily: the right to choose what to read and when, where and why, the right not to write a review after finishing each book and the right not to be quizzed on the content/characters/theme or plot. Many will also exercise the right not to finish a book, but do we offer such rights to younger readers? Daniel Pennac’s Rights of a Reader (wonderfully illustrated by Quentin Blake), are worth exploring with children in this regard since intrinsic motivation is key – reading for its own sake rather than reading for rewards such as recognition, grades and competition. As schools across the country pick up the mantle of inviting and enticing children to read for pleasure, teachers may need to loosen the reading reins and hand more control over to them. Are only those deemed ‘free readers’ able to make choices? What are the consequences of having your ‘school reading book’ imposed upon you? Reading for pleasure has to be child-owned and directed, oriented towards reading for oneself, not for teachers or parents, the school or the system.
Much depends however on our long terms aims. Do we want to develop readers for life (the maximum entitlement) or are we satisfied with the ‘expected standard’ (the minimum)? And why has children’s pleasure become a statutory requirement now? It has never before been authorised in England. In the prescriptive remit of the original National Literacy Strategy back in 1998, whilst there were more than 55 verbs to describe reading: ‘enjoy’ was not one of them. The reason for the current attention on this issue lies of course, at least in part, in PISA and PIRLS results and established international evidence that reading for pleasure – independent choice led reading – is a strong predictor of reading attainment. These large-scale surveys also assert that the relationship between reading achievement and positive attitudes to reading is bi-directional: the will influences the skill and vice versa. Hardly surprising at one level, but it seems to have been enough, alongside concerted campaigning by literacy organisations, (and perhaps some awareness of research evidence), to influence government.
I am uncomfortable however with harnessing children’s reading for pleasure, even implicitly to the standards agenda. If standards fail to rise and children’s engagement in reading (as measured in PISA and PIRLS) refuses to shift, will the profession be offered technocratic ‘guidance’ in this regard; lists of required practices which will apparently deliver the golden goose, but may also serve to limit children’s lived experience of reading. The imposed emphasis on policy-endorsed phonic schemes in the early years and the accompanying Year 1 Phonics Check suggests the profession needs to mindful of the challenging imperative to ‘teach’ reading for pleasure. Creating an effective balance between teaching reading, and fostering readers’ pleasurable engagement through building communities of readers characterised by reciprocity and interaction, is genuinely challenging. The assessment of the former tends to sideline the latter. Again our aims need to guide us. Indeed in re-reading the Cambridge Primary Review Trust’s 12 aims for primary education, I was struck by how many resonate with the reading for pleasure agenda. Aims one and two focus on ‘wellbeing’ and ‘engagement’ as both preconditions and outcomes of successful education, aim four profiles children’s ‘autonomy and sense of self’ and aims five and ten, which focus on ‘respect and reciprocity’ and fostering ‘skill development’ respectively,are also feasible through developing communities of engaged readers. But it is the 11th aim ‘exciting the imagination’ that underscores why reading for pleasure must be seen as a worthwhile activity in its own terms.
To excite children’s imagination in order that they can advance beyond present understanding, extend the boundaries of their lives, contemplate worlds possible as well as actual, understand cause and consequence, develop the capacity for empathy, and reflect on and regulate their behaviour; to explore and test language, ideas and arguments in every activity and form of thought … We assert the need to emphasise the intrinsic value of exciting children’s imagination. To experience the delights – and pains – of imagining, and of entering into the imaginative worlds of others, is to become a more rounded and capable person.
Reading literature, in particular, can distinctively excite and develop the imagination and whilst children’s textual choices and interests are important, reading (and hearing, inhabiting and discussing) literature must retain a central role. It can support children’s personal, social, moral and cultural education, and can, as CPRT asserts, strengthen, challenge or alter the ways in which they see the world and engage with it. So as schools respond to the requirement to develop reading for pleasure, they would be well served by revisiting these aims in order to avoid implementing practice that leans towards ‘demanding’ or ‘requiring’ demonstrations of apparently positive attitudes or compliant dispositions on the part of young readers.
Reading for pleasure and reader engagement cannot be mandated.