Encouraging others to enjoy something we love is a normal human behaviour. It might be a type of food, or films by a certain director, or walks in the countryside… but it gets more complicated when we think about sharing a love of skill-based activities like, say, cycling or swimming.

What if your friend can’t swim or cycle? Maybe they can, but not well enough to be confident. What if they’ve previously had a bad experience? Maybe they can’t see the point of making all that effort to learn how, because the activity doesn’t appeal to them.

Any one of these things will get in the way of your attempts to convert your friend.

Inspiring children to read for pleasure must include an awareness of these same factors – and (as with swimming and cycling) being able to read isn’t enough.

Skill-building to the point of confidence – from decoding and then automaticity through to fluency – has to be part of the process. But so must motivation: the appeal of the activity inspires the hard work that is required to master the skills.

Children who grow up in a cycling family – for whom the child-seat on the back of a bike is a place of comfort and fun, and quality bicycles are the norm – are more likely to learn to ride early than a child with little-to-no experience of cycling and little-to-no hope of ever owning a nice bike.

Similarly, pre-readers who are read to frequently, and are surrounded by adults and/or older children who clearly read often, seem to pick up reading skills more readily.

And having access to gorgeous books full of mesmerising stories is like having access to the most beautiful, well-maintained swimming facilities: it doesn’t replace learning the skills, but it may well help with the drive and desire to do so.

In school, we can work on building the appeal, and so inspire the hard work required: availability of appealing books, lots of immersive story-time, and models of reading for pleasure.

This latter can be crucial in showing children from sparse-reading homes that reading isn’t just something hard that school wants them to do.

And it can be achieved in simple, time-efficient ways: we have encountered an NQT, for example, who left her chunky commute-read on her desk every day, and her class became mesmerised and then motivated by the progress of her bookmark through the novel’s many pages!

Quick ideas for reading confidence

  • In all year groups, listen to children read and be analytical about any decoding errors. Very often there is a pattern (eg certain sounds at the ends of words, or adjacent consonants in the middle of words, or getting lost in polysyllabic words) and those can be addressed specifically and efficiently.
  • Check their automaticity with high-frequency words in context. It is impossible to read fluently if you have to sound-out half the words on the page!
  • Watch out for poor self-correction. When children regularly select the wrong sound for a given grapheme, this suggests they either aren’t meaning-monitoring as they read, or that gaps in their vocabulary mean they don’t actually recognise the word they are reading.
  • Sometimes, model fluency with slightly exaggerated prosody when reading aloud; emphasise the micro-pauses that occur between phrases even where there isn’t a comma. (“When he was dressed, he went down the hall into the kitchen,” becomes, “When he was dressed – he went down the hall – into the kitchen.”) (From Harry Potter bk1)
  • Repeat (or echo) reading, where you read a sentence and the child reads the same sentence, trying to imitate your intonation, can help with fluency.
  • Repeated bouts of choral reading, with feedback between each read-through, have been shown to improve fluency (eg Patel and Laud, 2007). We have found choral reading of poetry and song lyrics to be very helpful, as the rhythms of verse explicitly support prosody.
  • When reading to children, and when choral reading, keep focus on comprehension (and engagement high) with ‘micro-drama’. For example, “Show me [this character’s] face right now,”; “What might they be doing with their eyes at this moment?” and so on.
  • Encourage visualisation without pictures by demonstrating positional relationships physically, using your hands or simple props: “So Peter Rabbit is in a wheelbarrow here; Mr McGregor is here, but facing away; the door out of the garden is here. So what must Peter do to escape?”
  • Background knowledge is key in comprehension, whether children are listening or reading for themselves. Many ‘slow progress’ readers lack breadth of life-experiences and the general (and genre) knowledge acquired from bedtime stories. When preparing a text, pre-empt as many potential prior-knowledge pitfalls as possible, and have pictures / explanations ready. Google is a real help here, but try not to leave it until the session!

Quick ideas for motivating reading

  • Think about ways of communicating tacitly that reading (for pleasure and purpose) is something that people do. The impact of a sports-coach, for example, simply carrying a novel (or similar) that is his or her own, could potentially be profound for some children.
  • Make links with children’s interests, such as popular comics, films or hobbies. This can give children a prior-knowledge anchor, when they might otherwise feel adrift.
  • Consider what the library and book areas ‘say’ to children about the value of reading (imagine a dirty, shabby swimming pool, or a rusty bike with a puncture). A poorly-maintained book area may be worse than no book area at all.
  • Many schools now give young readers a book for the development of word reading, and one for children to listen to (the latter may be swapped for an audiobook, as appropriate). This practice can be extended to all primary-age children: one teacher-directed book, and one at a higher level – perhaps an audio. We can all listen at a level higher than we can read for ourselves.

What if you don’t enjoy reading?

Not every primary practitioner loves reading, but it helps to be reasonably well-read (in the realm of children’s literature) in order to do the job! Some very quick strategies for colleagues in this position:

  • Listen to audio books while commuting, or even when you go to bed!
  • Know that it may take 5, 10, even 50 pages for a book to seize you, and be prepared to push through that initial resistance. And share that experience with the children.
  • Always, always seek recommendations from colleagues and friends, and consider starting a book club amongst colleagues. This doesn’t have to be time-consuming; it may just be a formalised way of sharing and encouraging (“It doesn’t get good until the 4th chapter, but then it grabs you!”).
  • Also try books that have stood the test of time, as most have done so for good reason.
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  • Regard reading as part of your professional development (it will even improve your own writing, and therefore your ability to model-write) and set yourself targets!

Christine Chen and Lindsay Pickton are primary education advisors (primaryeducationadvisors.co.uk), supporting English development nationally.