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The Problem With Reading For Pleasure

  • The Problem With Reading For Pleasure

Headline-grabbing programmes, celebrity supporters and cheap books are no substitute for real investment in literacy teaching and support, argues Alex Quigley…

Everyone, from parents to politicians, teachers to students, can unite in the cause of prioritising reading for pleasure. Or can we?

I realise that calling into question the value of reading for pleasure – from an English teacher no less – feels akin to exposing Father Christmas as a sham and baking the Easter Bunny in a tasty pie to serve to a roomful of little children. So, let me explain myself…

High ideas

Over the past few months, the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, has pinned her colours to the reading mast by promoting ‘Chatterbooks’ – a parent-friendly flagship reading project that promotes reading groups in local libraries, supporting children with reading materials. Flanked by comedian-author, David Walliams, she also criticised publishers for the prohibitive cost of the classics, suggesting that such Scrooge-like behaviour was inhibiting their popularity.

Morgan made this celebrity-endorsed event part of a bold call to declare an aim for UK children to become the ‘best readers in Europe’. It is a laudable aim, and one that I wholly support. I have happily taken part in a reading programme with my daughter, as part of a drive to get fathers reading with their children. I know that for my daughter, if she can learn the requisite 5000 or so words a year that is now expected of school-age children, then she will possess a wealth of words that will help to prove her unique “portable magic”.

The crucial point is that reading for pleasure should be valued and promoted – but if Nicky Morgan champions ‘Chatterbooks’ and reading for pleasure, then she should also be open to the fact that many more structural supports are needed to help our children become the best readers on the continent. Of course, my role in reading with my daughter, and as an English teacher, is only one such strand in the complex web of reading development. Impacting upon the reading skill level of an entire nation requires a great deal of investment and support beyond one headline-friendly programme.

Structural issues

There are some gaping holes that quickly appear in the policy that heralds ‘Chatterbooks’. At the same time that this relatively small programme to encourage library use by children is being promoted, there’s an obvious irony in that hundreds of actual libraries across the nation are being closed. The Library Campaign estimates that at least 500 of the 4500 libraries in England are under threat.

Schools, if they continue to be squeezed like local government in order to make cuts, will not be able boost or even maintain their library provision either. Chatterbooks, alas, may result in promoting little more than idle chatter for the middle classes.

Crucially, there’s evidence that shows that focusing on reading for pleasure will not improve the reading capacity of the children who we know need it most. The ultimate aim of encouraging reading for pleasure is to boost reading confidence, but other strategies are required first to ensure that our children display reading competence.

Weaker readers need well-structured and often highly intensive reading interventions. Phonics programmes – also promoted by the DfE – are no doubt a positive start, but more must be done. Programmes like Switch-On Reading are shown to have more impact comparatively than the likes of Chatterbooks (both programmes were evaluated by the Education Endowment Foundation) because they tackle illiteracy and explicitly build reading competence in our children.

Reading for pleasure programmes often fail to fulfil their promises because there are flaws in their very architecture. You see, children do not become better readers simply by being exposed to more books, nor do they read classics simply because they are cheap. This focus on the ‘what’ misses the crucial ‘how’ of reading competence.

Future investment

For our children to become the best readers in Europe, it will primarily require excellent teaching, investment and targeted support in schools. Teachers will need to have the time, resources and training to focus in on a crucial range of reading strategies, explicit vocabulary instruction, proven literacy programmes, and much more. As school budgets dwindle, these factors that really enhance reading will only suffer.

We can provide children with a raft of cheaper classics (the DfE may wish to note, by the way, that many such titles already come free on the devices that most students carry around in their pockets) and we can support a short-term reading programme, but when everything else that supports reading competence and confidence is systematically cut, then we build our houses on quicksand.

Am I protesting too much? Well, reading for pleasure should be celebrated – but we should be critical if we do not at the same time see investment in tackling the root causes of illiteracy, and support for schools in prioritising approaches to improving reading that have proven impact.

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