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Reading comprehension – How to encourage books for pleasure

If we want children to pick up books for pleasure, we need to do more than teach them the essential reading skills, say Christine Chen and Lindsay Pickton…

Lindsay Pickton and Christine Chen
by Lindsay Pickton and Christine Chen
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When considering the question, “How do we turn children into lifelong readers?” (those who read for pleasure as well as when they are required to), we often find it helpful and revealing to ask the same question of other life-enhancing skills, such as swimming.

Helping a child become a lifelong swimmer, who swims for pleasure as well as in an emergency, is a worthy goal that will contribute to a healthy existence.

So, what needs to be in place to bring this about? Pleasant environments – well-maintained pools and beaches, even lakes – will help with motivation and build associations between swimming and pleasure, especially if experienced very early in life.

Similarly, early opportunities to playfully build confidence in water, in a safe way, before the ability to swim has been acquired, will help enormously. Then there’s being surrounded by swimming and swimmers, and therefore the expectation that this is a thing we do.

None of these replaces the teaching and learning of the necessary skills, but they all help… and they are likely to make that learning process easier.

As for swimming, so for reading. Lovely environments and attractive resources, a culture of expectation, early associations with fun through safe, playful experiences, plus immersion in plentiful models of adept reading: these are all important components in the development of the habit of reading for pleasure and purpose.

They cannot replace the teaching and learning process – however, they’re likely to make that process go more smoothly.

Encouraging lifelong readers

The development of real readers, then, requires a truly multi-pronged approach; this is especially true for those children who don’t come from backgrounds in which those environmental aspects are the norm.

When we were invited to work with Plazoom on a new comprehension resource, we sought to help teachers with the teaching and learning process, while aiming simultaneously to support engagement, motivation and breadth of experience.

What are the hurdles that get in the way of reading comprehension (and therefore, pleasure and purpose)? Simply put, accuracy, fluency, and prior knowledge of content and vocabulary.

What are the chances of developing a love of reading if you aren’t fluent? Fluency requires speedy decoding and automatic word recognition, plus familiarity with the speed, phrasing and intonation of language.

And then lots of practice. That’s why we are such fans of what Doug Lemov (et al), in Reading Reconsidered, calls ‘layered reading’: repeated re-reads in different forms.

We strongly advocate, at the very least, a model-read followed by a choral-read of the focus text, first to demonstrate what it should sound like, then to ease children safely into reading (and if they really can’t, they’ve had another chance to listen to it).

Multiple re-reads is perhaps the key comprehension strategy for life, too; it’s what we all do when we don’t get something!

Alongside the development of fluency, pre-empting and addressing likely gaps in knowledge (subject matter and vocabulary) is a foundational, powerful way to address inequities in children’s starting points; this enables comprehension.

Access for all

Perhaps the biggest question when it comes to growing abilities in a class setting is differentiation, and here the swimming analogy helps again.

If some children are always kept in the ‘baby pool’, they never learn to swim 25 metres; similarly, if some children are always exploring below-age-appropriate texts, how will they learn to read appropriately?

Whether we use whole-class reading or small groups, we want all children to access the age-appropriate text: some will need additional pre-teaching of knowledge, vocabulary and/or fluency; some may also need additional support with easier texts to practise their decoding and automaticity.

But they can all listen to the class text (this is the key comprehension mode for Y1, after all), and through layered reading, children will begin to join in increasingly with the choral aspects. Then, they may well surprise you with their comprehension.

And those strong readers, who can already read the class text with ease? The processes we’ve touched upon here give them a deeper read with close analysis, the requirement to articulate and evidence their understanding (orally and in writing), and the exploration of themes and comparison between a range of texts that they might otherwise not explore.

Lifelong reading (for pleasure and otherwise) is dependent on comprehension, and we know that the teaching of comprehension is dependent on so much more than set texts and set questions.

But if we can get it all in place, with luck all children may relax on holiday with a good book, then read the safety notices before leaping into the water for a pleasurable swim!

Christine Chen and Lindsay Pickton are primary education advisers ( supporting English development nationally.

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