Reading for pleasure – encourage choice to garner interest

Having restrictive ideas and goals for reading for pleasure will only make pupils resent it, says Lis Jardine. So pass the comics!

Lis Jardine
by Lis Jardine
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Reading for Pleasure – English activity for KS1

As a secondary school librarian, I see first-hand a lot of children who stop reading for pleasure, often in Years 8 and 9 (age 12–14).

They find it boring, irrelevant, and no kind of competition to their screens.

Any love for books they ever had has often been squashed out of them by the things schools ‘have’ to do to improve pupils’ reading skills.

Filling out worksheets, close reading, writing reviews or responses, and spending months on the same text are all a bore.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that there aren’t a bunch of quick fixes for this. No single activity or trick is going to give these kids back their love of reading.  

But, what I think we should do to encourage a habit of reading for pleasure is to relinquish control.

And we need to begin this in primary school, so they have the skills to find texts that matter to them in those later years.  

We all know that children’s own choices of books are an essential part of enjoying reading.

We’ve all seen a child we thought completely uninterested in reading finally get absorbed into a text they’re genuinely fond of.  

So, how does this work in the classroom? These are some ways we could give children back choice: 

Be a role model

To help the children in your life, you need to read things you’re passionate about, and talk all the time about what you’re reading.

Make reading time a priority in your own life. If you’re a teacher or a librarian who deals with a lot of younger kids, read books for that age group.

Without a community around them who all read and talk about their books, how will kids know that reading is rewarding and relevant? 

Respect reading rights

Don’t ever laugh at, judge or invalidate what they read.

No book should ever be ridiculed, especially if it’s one they’ve chosen themselves.

Superhero comics are reading. Beauty or car magazines, music websites, gamer blogs and technical instruction manuals are all reading.

We must make sure kids know that all these forms are valid and that reading anything makes them a reader. This identity will stick.

Tap into interests

They aren’t you and they won’t necessarily like the books you read, or read as a child.

Many children are jaded by old-fashioned books, and have no idea that fresh and exciting stories exist.

Because so many people only shop for books in supermarkets, the rich diversity of current children’s books is never even noticed by the majority of adults.

But there is something for everyone out there.  

If they’re gamers, get them gaming magazines or books that tie in to their favourites.

If they watch Marvel films on repeat, why not offer them the source graphic novels?

What you think of as ‘quality literature’ can come later; what we’re aiming for is establishing the custom of reading.  

Offer a range

Kids need to be surrounded, every day, with fiction, comics, magazines, non-fiction, or whatever they express an interest in.

Therefore, all classrooms should have a big bookcase with modern and attractive books relevant to the age group and just above; especially short non-fiction reads for those kids who find chunky fiction off-putting.

There are a huge number of kids who avoid anything longer than 50 pages. 

Equally important is to get rid of tattered or old-fashioned books in your collection. Their unattractive appearance will dilute the impact of any fun books you actually have.  

Teach them how to choose

Firstly, use a library! I’ve known (and continue to meet) many children for whom a library is a mystery.

They don’t know the vocabulary of borrowing, returning and renewing; they don’t know how to find anything specific, how books are arranged, or whether they can actually take the books home with them.

But as the book blogger Dawn Finch says: “The library is a key factor in turning your child into an accomplished reader – precisely because of that treasure trove of choice.

“Where else can your child stand in the midst of hundreds of different titles and grab whatever catches their eye for free?”

Provide reading time

In The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller suggests that without lots of time spent reading books they have freely chosen, children will not get that wonderful feeling of immersion in a story.

If you can, ringfence lengthy opportunities in class, and don’t expect them to drop their book without a nice bit of warning (you’d hate it if you couldn’t finish the chapter!).

I heartily recommend Donalyn’s book for anyone wanting to know more about her approach, too. 

Be flexible with reading schemes

I’ve used schemes at two different schools and I see them as a means and not an end. I’ve learned to be flexible.

Some kids will love the structure and the point-earning, and quiz frequently for that feeling of success.

But, for other kids the limitations are terribly discouraging; they have to read something quizzable, and they have to keep trying to test and often getting disappointing results back.

What’s more, if they’re slow readers they may be told off for not quizzing often enough; unsurprisingly, this doesn’t make them any keener to read!

Being told they can read what they like is a huge weight off their minds. 

Focus on successes  

Lastly, please don’t insist that they must finish what they have started.

Kids should be allowed to abandon anything that they aren’t actively enjoying.

Any kind of pressure to stick with something dull is giving them negative feedback. 

How to help kids choose a book

  1. Look at the cover – does it spark your interest? Do you like the title? Is it similar to other books you’ve enjoyed? 
  1. Look at the back! Read the blurb to see if the book is about something that interests you. 
  1. What genre is it? If you watch a lot of murder mysteries or listen to non-fiction podcasts, you might find books in these genres more attractive. 
  1. Try a few pages! Read one to three, and see what you think. Is the writing style pacey and exciting? Do you want to carry on? If it’s not right for you, just put it back and try again. 
  1. Ask your friends or a teacher/librarian whose opinion you trust. What do they think you’d like? Do they know of something similar to books you’ve enjoyed before? 
  1. Do the five-finger test: read one page from the middle of the book. Count one finger for every word you don’t know, and if you get to five it might be that the vocabulary is too hard in this book. 

*Adapted from the National Literacy Trust’s ‘How to choose a book’ 

Lis Jardine is a secondary school librarian and author. Her first book The Detention Detectives (£7.99, Puffin) is out now.  

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