When Cressida Cowell, author of the hugely popular How To Train Your Dragon series, was made Children’s Laureate in 2019, she set out her to-do list in the form of a charter.

Number one on the list? “Read for the joy of it.”

“I want all children to have the opportunities that I did when I was young,” Cressida explains to Teach Primary. “To have access to a variety of books so they can find something they love,” she continues. “Research shows that reading for the joy of it has powerful, measurable real-life benefits that can transform lives.”

“No matter who you are, if you read for the joy of it you are more likely to be happier, healthier, more likely to vote and own your own home.” By listing it at the very top of her charter, Cressida sent out a clear and important message: reading for pleasure is absolutely vital.

It’s fair to say that for children across the United Kingdom, 2020 was a year like no other. As well as the numerous benefits we all know reading brings, including language development, confidence and communication skills, reading can also be an important escape for many children.

Join us as we celebrate the work many schools, charities and organisations are doing to keep reading for pleasure alive at a time when it’s more needed than ever.

Win £500 of books!

We’re giving one school the chance to win £500 worth of books to bolster your school library, courtesy of Usborne.

This amazing bundle is packed with titles that will spark curiosity and grow young minds, including the fantastical The Train to Impossible Places series by PG Bell, COSTA shortlisted The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson with illustrations by Rob Biddulph, and enchanting fairytale The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson.

Find out about Usborne’s resources for teachers here and enter the competition for your chance to win here (deadline 20th Feb 2021).

Even before-Covid 19 arrived on the scene, reading for pleasure is an activity that has been pinched by the diverse pressures, and pleasures, of children’s contemporary lives. Heidi Perry, lead for school strategy at national charity Read for Good, has spoken to teachers and librarians about how lockdown has impacted children choosing to read for pleasure.

“The responses are best summed up by the words of one teacher,” explains Heidi, “Those that do read, have read more, and those that do not, have barely read at all.”

Heidi says that for bookworms and those with access to books at home, lockdown proved to be the Holy Grail of getting children to read. However, she goes on to explain, at the other end of the spectrum, for children who live in homes without books, comics and magazines or don’t consider themselves ‘readers’, the lifeline of daily facilitation and encouragement provided by schools and local libraries was brutally cut off.

“In those households,” Heidi explains, “screen time was often the only way a stressed-out parent could occupy their child during lockdown.”

BookTrust, the UK’s largest children’s reading charity, recognised that during lockdown many children had little or no access to books. Working in partnership with 168 local authorities and councils, it shipped over 200,000 books to primary-age children.

Diana Gerald, BooKTrust CEO, says, “We are all in this together, and yet the impact of this pandemic is not shared equally. Reading can be hugely reassuring in a world that for many is now very challenging. Getting books to families has always been important; now, getting them to families in struggling circumstances is absolutely mission critical.”

Keith Cullen, a family support worker in Northern Ireland who received literary care packages to distribute to the families he works with, noted how important they’ve been to the children who’ve received them.

He says, “If there has been one positive for us out of the present situation, it’s been the increase in reading among our children, of every age.”

So what’s next for reading for pleasure, in a world where everything is still very topsy-turvy? For Heidi from Read for Good, it’s about acknowledging that after spending lots more time in front of a screen, it might be difficult to entice children back to the page, but also using the hook of children’s media diets to draw them back in.

Here are her tips for re-engaging children in reading for pleasure:

  • Find a hook – games like Fortnite and Minecraft contain elements of ‘story’ which can lead a discussion towards books.
  • All reading counts – forget about attainment levels and let children choose whatever they like; comics, magazines, graphic novels, even the sports pages.
  • Encourage re-reading – if books feel like familiar friends to revisit, enjoyment of reading will grow.
  • Try listening – audio books and films can be a way in to books that seem daunting.
  • Talk about it – book talk and peer recommendations help to grow a sense of community in these socially-distanced times. Try to let conversation flow freely.

Broadening horizons

Making time to share a book in class every day has been essential for getting reading back on track in Newcastle-based primary teacher Steph Elliott’s classroom. “For me, there’s so much you can get from being a reader,” she says. “It opens your eyes; it builds empathy; it broadens horizons.”

“It gives you wonderful tools for writing and reading. Once children find a book they love, they discover a way into this amazing world of books.” Steph’s school has a focus on reading and making time for books. “It’s a well-known fact that reading improves so many outcomes for children,” she adds.

Despite being a Y6 teacher, Steph finds the time to fit reading into the daily life of her classroom. “A lot of the work we do is book-based,” she explains. “That includes English lessons but also history and geography. You can find a story to match any curriculum area if you look closely enough.”

Last year, as part of their second world war history lessons, Steph’s class read Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. “The children were engrossed,” says Steph. “They never wanted me to stop reading and we had some incredible debates based on the story.”

“Some of my ‘reluctant’ readers turned into full-blown lovers of listening to stories because of that book.” 

Steph has found books particularly useful when it comes to teaching PSHE. “It’s a brilliant way for children to begin conversations about tricky subjects, without it being about them.” Steph’s pupils read for 20 minutes after lunch, while she reads her own book, and time is also given at the end of the day for the class novel.

“It’s about making space for reading. After all, you’d make space for an extra bit of maths if you needed to.”

The routine of reading every day has had a positive impact on Steph’s class. “We have incredible book talk in the classroom because children are reading high-quality texts. One of my pupils, who will gladly admit that he wasn’t very keen on reading in the past, raced through Dragon Mountain by Katie and Kevin Tsang and adored it.”

“He asks me every day if the sequel has arrived yet because he’s so desperate to read it. Seeing the change in his attitude towards reading has been an incredible experience and I hope I can find books like that for all children to ignite their love of reading.”

The stats

  • 47% of parents say their children are doing more independent reading since the first lockdown
  • 34% of parents say they are reading to their children more
  • 28% of families never read bedtime stories
  • 11% of parents read their child a bedtime story for the first time ever during lockdown
  • 6% of children did not read for pleasure at all during the first lockdown

Statistics taken from BookTrust research (published April 2020).

Reading boost

For Sarah Taylor (name changed), a teacher at a primary school in Camden, a charity initiative has helped her to target children who need a reading boost. At the end of Y1, pupil Sophia (name changed) scored very low on her phonics screening test and was functionally unable to read.

Sarah felt it was Sophia’s relationship with reading that was her biggest barrier, commenting that when it was time to read, Sophia would “be nervous, get upset and wouldn’t engage in discussions about books because she found it so difficult.”

Last year, Sarah’s school started working with Bookmark, a charity that runs volunteer-led programmes to boost children’s reading skills and confidence. The programme’s focus on fun really helped Sophia, As Sarah explains: “She learnt that she likes humorous books – it turns out she has a wicked sense of humour.”

Sophia started making good progress and was really excited about reading. “Soon she was getting up in front of the class to recommend her favourite books,” explains Sarah.

When the first lockdown happened, Sophia remained in school as a vulnerable child and was able to continue her Bookmark sessions online. “She’s like a different person now,” says Sarah. “She’s confident and looks forward to her reading sessions. She’s gone from avoiding reading to picking her own books to take home.

“Because she kept up her reading during lockdown, she hasn’t fallen behind and, ultimately, her future is bright.”

Find out more about Bookmark here.

Free CPD download to boost reading

Discover creative lesson activities and innovative teaching practices in this CPD box set full of ideas for boosting reading skills. Sign up for free and we’ll send you great teaching ideas and expertise direct to your inbox.

You’ll get PDFs of all the material to add to your own library of professional development.

  • How free book trailers can inspire reading and writing
  • Using comics to boost children’s comprehension
  • Books that will help children become lifelong readers
  • Why fluency should be part of the reading routine in every classroom

Book chat

Teresa Cremin, professor of education at the Open University, thinks chatting about books with children is a key aspect of developing reading for pleasure. Alongside teachers Ben Harris and Rich Charlesworth, she created a ‘book chat’ resource to support adults when reading with children.

The idea came about during lockdown when Teresa noticed some “less than engaging reading aloud online.” She explains, “It’s not easy online to leave space for children to look, think, ask questions and imagine so we wanted to offer a model for dialogic book sharing with closer attention to the book and children.”

The Book Chat project supports adults in reading effectively with children, encouraging conversation and ideas around a story and its themes.

Click here to watch three films modelling the use of open questions, comments and prompts to initiate conversation around books and enable adults and children to share the pleasure of reading together.

You can also watch a webinar about the role of talk in reading which covers research and practice insights, strategies to enrich informal book talk and book recommendations. Here are some tips from the Book Chat team about talking to children about books:

  • Pay attention to what captures children’s attention and build on their interests. For example, “Oh, you’ve spotted the ...!”.
  • Leave pauses so children can look closely and think. This will lead to comments on the pictures or questions. Respond to their lead and let the book chat flow.
  • Pose open questions to encourage thinking and discussion, such as, “How do you think the boy is feeling?”. Try to avoid closed questions which have a single answer.
  • Encourage children to notice details in illustrations and what they might mean. For example, say “Look! What’s that hiding? What do you think it might be?”.
  • Ask pupils to wonder about what might happen, using phrases such as, “I wonder if/whether/who/why/what …”.
  • Encourage children to make personal connections with stories. Books allow children to empathise with the experiences of fictional characters and enable them to make sense of events in their own lives. Talk about connections by saying, “That reminds me of when…”.
  • Comment on your feelings when you’re reading. By sharing your emotional response to a character or something that’s happened, children will be encouraged to do the same, helping them engage and learn to express their emotions.
  • Bring the story to life with facial expression, actions and sounds and encourage pupils to join in. Offer information to help with unfamiliar words but keep the focus on fun.

“She didn’t want to read “girly” books”

Matthew Lane, a Y6 teacher in Norfolk, bonded with a pupil over their love of fantasy books…

“A child in my class was stuck on reading Harry Potter. While it’s a great series, she just kept coming back to them and wouldn’t try anything else. She was adamant she didn’t want to read “girly” books, but needed age-appropriate primary fiction.”

“I introduced her to the works that fed into Rowling’s writing of the Potter series: the world of Narnia; adventurous Hobbits; the deliciously dark humour of Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. She developed a love of fantasy worlds, intellectual writing and historical settings.”

“She was also quick to spot the links between Lewis and our RE lessons. What this showed me was that it’s important to look for the thematic links in the books children enjoy, rather than simply recommending them new or ‘exciting looking’ books.”

“It also encouraged me to bring my own reading tastes into my book corner – children will always be curious about books that their teacher loves.”

We want to hear from you!

How have you encouraged reading for pleasure during the pandemic and since schools reopened? We’d love to hear your success stories. Tweet us at @teachprimary.