Reading for pleasure – How to cultivate a passion for books
Want to instil a genuine love for reading in your students? Here are some practical and inspiring ways to make it happen…
- by Teachwire
Embarking on a journey to inspire more reading for pleasure in your classroom and beyond? You’re in the right place…
Are schools trying too hard to encourage reading for pleasure?
If your students can’t see books as windows into amazing worlds, maybe someone or something is blocking their view, writes Luke Palmer…
To hear some people talk, it’s as though they think there should be a red panic button in every English classroom. ‘This child doesn’t read,’ it would say.
Pressing it would scramble a squad of Kevlar-clad teacher-interventionists, who would abseil into the classroom, extract the child in question and whisk them by Chinook to a purpose-built facility.
Said child would then return to their learning – a mere day or two later, so efficient would this program be – fully reformed and eager. All would be assured of their future success, having now become that most exquisite of things – someone who reads for pleasure.
Research has repeatedly shown that reading for pleasure is a leading indicator of future success, with those who regularly read outside of school performing better on almost every testable parameter there is.
It’s such a boon that Ofsted now looks for evidence of reading for pleasure in schools, thus prompting schools to try and provide precisely that. Yet last autumn saw the National Literacy Trust report its lowest ever numbers for levels of reading enjoyment among young people, with boys and students receiving FSM faring worst.
Things seem bleak. Maybe those panic buttons need to be bigger. Or maybe it’s all those interventions that are actually the problem…
“Last autumn saw the National Literacy Trust report its lowest ever numbers for levels of reading enjoyment among young people”
In an oft-quoted essay dating from 1990, US school librarian Rudine Sims Bishop describes the pleasures of reading. Books, she says, can be windows onto unfamiliar worlds, or sliding doors we can walk through. They can also be mirrors, reflecting versions of ourselves back at us, “As part of the larger human experience.”
To succeed, young people need to feel that they’re valued – and what better way to feel that value than to see yourself reflected as a vital force, in a complete world held between the covers of a book? This is the importance of reading; it instils and cements our place in the world, while allowing us to explore and empathise with the places of others.
Too many noses
The problem, however, is that the glass is fragile. When too many noses are pressed against a window, the smears obscure the view. If you keep pushing against a mirror, it will crack.
Since the publication of my first novel for young people in 2021, I’ve had the privilege to visit many schools up and down the country – and contrary to apparent trends, loads of young people want to talk to me about books.
It helps that I’m an unfamiliar face. The students I visit want to talk to me more than those I teach, but it’s always the students who tell me, ‘I don’t usually read books, but…’ that are my favourite to talk to.
Show them the horizon
I write about characters who rarely do the right thing. In my novel Grow, Josh is a ‘good kid’ groomed into far-right extremism following the tragic death of a parent. Play follows four young men pushing at the boundaries of their masculinity, breaking things to see how they work.
“It’s always the students who tell me, ‘I don’t usually read books, but…’ that are my favourite to talk to”
Back when I was a schoolboy, I’d respond to anything teachers and parents claimed was ‘good for me’ with antipathy. Reading for pleasure isn’t an ‘additional learning experience’, nor an ‘investment in the future’. It’s certainly not something that should smell like work. It’s something complete, in and of itself.
The NLT report says that ‘supportive environments’ can encourage young people’s reading habits. We must, of course, equip young people with the tools to decode texts at every opportunity – but ‘supportive’ cuts both ways.
If we really want to promote reading for pleasure in schools, then we need only show them the wide horizon of glass skyscrapers that are out there.
After that, if we really feel that we must accompany them, then we should allow ourselves to be led to the windows that young people choose for themselves.
Luke Palmer is an author, poet and English teacher; his latest YA novel, Play, is available now (£8.99, Firefly Press).
How a good library can turn students into bibliophiles
School librarian Lucas Maxwell recounts he got students at Glenthorne High School to fall in love with reading…
Here at Glenthorne High School we have a huge mix of over 1,700 students spanning ages 11 to 19. To me, as someone originally from rural Canada, this seems massive.
I previously worked over there in a public library when my British wife and I both opted to relocate to the UK. I started working at the school 10 years ago. They’ve been super supportive ever since – to an extent that I’d say is quite rare. When budgets are tight, the school library will often be one of the first things to be cut, but not here.
I can still clearly remember how the headteacher introduced me to the rest of the staff when I first started: “This is Lucas Maxwell, our new librarian, and he’s going to make everybody in this school fall in love with reading.”
He and the rest of the school leadership had a very clear idea of what they wanted my role to involve. They were prepared to grant me complete freedom in how I went about fulfilling what they expected of me.
Initially, the library provision occupied just one relatively small room. However, two years after I joined, the school embarked on building a brand new library, which was amazing. My colleague and I were even able to play a part in planning it.
Our library is one of the first things visitors notice when they first enter the school. It’s a large, fully open space with plenty of natural light and bookshelves lining the walls. There are lots of movable shelves and other furniture towards the centre.
That’s because from day one, I wanted the space to be used for other activities in addition to reading and studying. This includes open mic performances, which we put on in partnership with the music department.
These kinds of external activities can be good for bringing in students who might traditionally have never thought to use the school library.
We prefer to think of it as more than a traditional library space. It’s a space our students can feel some ownership over.
Fortnightly library lessons
From my own investigations, I’ve found that the national proportion of students who say they enjoy reading for pleasure outside of school hovers around 3 in 10.
The sample sizes were admittedly smaller, and didn’t include every student in the school. However, from carrying out some anonymised internal surveys of our students’ attitudes towards reading, I’ve found their ‘reading for pleasure’ rate to be much higher, at around 7 or 8 out of 10.
That’s in large part due to the importance the school’s senior leadership attaches to literacy. KS3 groups attend fortnightly library lessons. This effectively deliver me a ready audience to whom I can promote the benefits of reading.
That translates into consistently high rates of borrowing. Boys actually borrow books more often than girls. However, I’d concede that’s mostly due to the huge popularity of our Manga and comic books collection.
Welcoming and engaging
We’ve worked hard to make the library a welcoming and engaging space. There’s plenty of soft seating, plus beanbag chairs in our dedicated Manga area that regularly plays host to small crowds. Somewhat selfishly, I’ve always kept in mind the kind of things that 11-year-old me would have wanted to see and do in my school’s library space – musical performances, a film club, a Dungeons & Dragons club, just lots of stuff.
On a more serious note, my role also includes an element of teaching students research skills, aspects of digital citizenship, how to identify disinformation and similar topics.
Those are all areas I’ve actively volunteered to assist with. This is essentially based on my own fears as to how the future is currently looking in terms of our media and communications landscape.
Kids are often much more savvy than we give them credit for. However, they can still be quite naïve in some other important ways.
Reliving the pressure
The latest Ofsted framework talks about reading for pleasure, and the need to establish cultures of reading within school classrooms. Yet without even knowing the half of it, I’m very conscious of just how difficult the workload is for teachers right now.
Much of the work we do in Glenthorne High School’s library are duties that my colleague and I have created for ourselves. This is a good thing – we want to do this stuff, and our teaching colleagues want us to as well.
If Ofsted and the wider DfE mean what they say about wanting schools to hit literacy targets and observe frameworks, then the best way of ensuring that is to let schools hire individuals like me.
Yes, that will mean putting money aside. However, I see part of my role as helping to relive some of that pressure. We have this beautiful space, freedom to try things out, and the time and space needed to create a sustainable culture of reading – which is what the DfE has said it wants.
Demanding that function from teachers runs the risk of it becoming a ‘tick box’ exercise. This is not because building a culture of reading is something teachers don’t care about. It’s more because they simply lack the time and mental capacity to take on any more.
A key way in which we’ve encouraged students’ interest in wider reading is to arrange in-school author visits.
For over 10 years, I’ve curated a social media presence for the school’s library. This promotes reading for pleasure and we regularly tag authors and publishers. This has built something of an audience in the process. It took a while, but our social media interactions ultimately got me on some publishers’ radars.
We also have a website where students can read reviews of books we have in the library and submit reviews of their own via the school’s VLE.
Just publishing those short, single-paragraph book reviews of books led to publishers getting in touch and offering us review copies of books. That then gave way to approaches along the lines of ‘We have an author who’d like to promote their book, would you like them to visit your school?’
Many of the author visits we have now will stem from me having DMed them on social media with an invitation to visit us. If they say yes, the arrangements then proceed through their official channels.
That said, I’m not sure I’d recommend that others follow this somewhat scattershot and improvised approach, even though it has worked. It helps a lot that I’m now in the position of being able to draw on a large pool of contacts built up over time.
Arranging those author visits, opening up the library space, the lessons that take place here – it’s all about creating moments in which everybody can get involved and become invested. What we’ve tried to do is make reading, and all the activities that surround it, a whole school concern.
Anatomy of an author visit
I’ll then pass form tutors a copy of the presentation slide I used in the assembly, along with a short accompanying speech I’ve written that they can then deliver. I’ll always aim to make the process of reminding students as easy as possible, in a way that hopefully no one finds condescending.
The week before, I’ll be sure to outline the details of the visit and what the arrangements will be to parents in an email. I’ll bring the event up again during any library lessons in the run-up to the event. The PowerPoint slide will now be displayed on several large presentation screens around the school.
When the day itself finally arrives, all teachers and parents will receive a final email reminder from me before I start to assemble the year group in the main hall. Much as we might like to host author visits in the library, there isn’t the space in there to accommodate all the numbers.
I’ll carefully time the duration of the event so that the start of that day’s morning break or lunchtime falls directly afterwards. Students will enter the hall and proceed to have a full hour’s audience with the author. Teachers are present at all times to supervise behaviour and maintain calm.
If we find ourselves with 20 minutes or more spare at the end, I’ll try to gather the Y8s that make up our small podcasting team. I’ll help them interview the author for a future podcast. We’ll then share the podcast around the school afterwards.
Award-winning reading for pleasure ideas
Funnies, feelies, and rivers: how two UK teachers successfully encouraged their pupils to take an interest in books…
What do you know about your current class as readers? Do you know more about their decoding and comprehension skills than their attitudes, preferences, and taste in books? Does this lead to imbalanced provision, with reading instruction pushing reading for pleasure to the side-lines?
We cannot and should not measure children’s pleasure in reading. But we can and must develop our knowledge of their:
- identities as readers
- diverse personal interests
- reading networks (or lack of them)
- home practices
Research reveals that knowledge of individual readers positively impacts on teachers’ classroom practices. It builds reader-to-reader connections between adults and children and helps nurture a love of reading.
Can you list the reading behaviours, attitudes, and networks of the less engaged readers in your KS1/2 class?
Do you have enough strategies and research-informed approaches to find out more?
Let’s explore some examples from the winners of the annual Farshore Reading for Pleasure Teacher Awards. This was in association with the UKLA and the Open University.
The winning teachers got to know their young readers, honoured their interests and enhanced their engagement.
Research via surveys
Georgie Lax from Starcross in Devon, winner of the Experienced Teacher Award 2021, wanted to find out about her Year 1 children’s reading interests.
Through using surveys, observations and discussions, she developed a book corner that better reflected the children’s reading preferences.
Reflecting on the children’s favourite books, Georgie found she could categorise most of these into ‘The Funnies’ or ‘The Feelies’.
‘The Funnies’ were books that provided light relief, laughter and escapism from the unpredictable and often unsettling world of Covid. ‘The Feelies’ were books which could support children’s wellbeing, allowing them to connect and empathise with one another during that time.
In particular, Georgie felt the latter often ‘gave children a voice even when they didn’t have the words themselves’.
This investigation into the children’s favourites not only nudged Georgie to read more herself, and to buy new funnies and feelies, but also led to spontaneous book discussions.
Opportunities to relax
The pupils realised their teacher had read these books too, and was open to chatting about them. The initial survey further revealed that being comfortable when reading mattered to most of the class.
So, Georgie began to give them more opportunities to relax and read in their own preferred ways. Some took their shoes off, others sat on blankets, mats or under tables. Some read with friends, others read alone. Georgie joined in too, occasionally offering hot chocolate and snacks.
Gradually the young learners began to develop increased ownership of their reading time. Georgie noted the care and attention they gave to the new ‘books in common’. She was pleased, much more frequently than before, to hear children asking, “Can I get a book?” when they had finished their work.
She also felt better able to make tailored text recommendations based on children’s personal interests.
In the spring and summer terms, Georgie used the survey again, alongside observations to analyse the children’s changing attitudes to reading. She noted that some pupils expressed increased confidence and were beginning to view themselves as readers.
In responding to individuals’ interests and her class’s views, Georgie made a difference to their engagement.
Amy Greatrex from Wilford in Trent, winner of the Experienced Teacher Award 2022, specifically wanted to enhance her understanding of a group of Reception children who needed support to develop a positive view of reading.
Amy used a number of strategies to develop a richer understanding of the threads connecting the focus children’s choices.
She observed and recorded their selections when they were exploring books, helped the group complete a reading preferences survey, and invited their parents to create a Reading River with them.
Reading Rivers are visual collages which have been used in research to track teenagers’ reading (Cliff Hodges, 2010) and to help primary pupils reflect on their everyday reading lives (Cremin et al., 2014). Amy developed another version of a Reading River with her own five-year-old.
Gradually, they gathered her daughter’s favourite texts, chatted about each, and photographed the resultant pile spread out like a river on the floor. Amy shared this visual with the focus children’s parents and encouraged them to do likewise.
All reading counts
She emphasised that they should only add texts that their child loved; that all reading counts (noting for instance her daughter’s inclusion of Top Trump cards and the Playmobil catalogue); allowed a long timeframe for completion; and chatted to parents informally about it at pick-up times.
After uploading images onto Tapestry, Amy took time with each child to hear more about their choices. She found that the children were drawn to classic texts, Disney, and superhero books and magazines, and were particularly keen on preschool and toddler books.
Honouring their interest in these texts, Amy altered her read-aloud provision and read from these twice weekly. Additionally, recognising the influence of agency in reading, she offered two choices and invited the children to vote by placing a pebble on their desired book.
Book voting triggered considerable talk around preferences and personal interests, and some discreet swapping of pebbles, such was the children’s eagerness for their own choices!
Introducing two tall boxes for the pebbles to sit in, Amy simultaneously created an aura of excitement and mystery about which book would be read that day.
Through finding out about their preferences and explicitly respecting and using these, Amy motivated the children’s engagement and supported their emerging sense of themselves as readers.
In July, her school held a Reading Rivers Day with staff modelling their own rivers on the playground, and each class creating one. These were photographed for their new teacher to build upon.
Learning more about your readers’ likes and dislikes, individually and as a class, and honouring these as Georgie and Amy do, nurtures children’s reading rights.
Their tastes and preferences will change as they encounter different writers and genres, so regularly updating this knowledge is helpful, enabling you to plan, connect and more effectively support young readers’ journeys.
How to get to know your readers
- Observing a few target children is invaluable in capturing a sense of their identities as readers in school. You could watch as they browse and choose texts during reading time, when you read aloud, and when they’re chatting informally with their peers.
- Reading surveys help you to explore pupils’ attitudes, self-confidence and home reading. KS1/2/3 surveys and tools to visualise the results are available.
- 24-hour reads are simple collages of books consumed across 24 hours that reveal children’s real world reading and interests. Do share your own to help highlight diversity.
- ‘Me as a reader’ diagrams can help children reflect on their likes, dislikes and practices, and share them.
- Reading conferences enable you to spend some time with individuals – they are most productive if based on surveys, observations, 24-hour reads, or ‘me as a reader’ diagrams.
Teresa Cremin is a professor of literacy in education at The Open University and a judge of the annual Farshore Reading for Pleasure Awards, run in partnership with the OU and UKLA.
Why I hate the term ‘reading for pleasure’
I want my class to enjoy books, but we need to find a phrase that’s less damaging to the cause, says deputy head Neil Almond…
Reading for pleasure has been a key concept in schools for a very long time. As primary teachers, we all know how important it is for children to read in various areas of their lives.
A National Reading Trust report from 2006 stated the vast wealth of benefits of reading outside of school. These included improved reading attainment and writing ability; better text comprehension and grammar; increased breadth of vocabulary; greater self-confidence as a reader, and many more.
But I really don’t like the term reading for pleasure. Here’s why.
Benefits of reading for pleasure
I think it’s incredibly important to distinguish between being able to read, and wanting to. There are many children (and adults!) who are perfectly capable of reading when they need to, but simply choose not to do so during their own time.
Demonising these decisions risks creating even more problems in developing reading skills, making children feel like they have to be reading at all hours of the day in order to get on in life.
Because of all the benefits it produces, of course we’d all love our pupils to enjoy reading. As teachers, then, we should focus on getting children to be able to read, should the desire arise, rather than trying to force them to genuinely like it before they have the requisite skills.
So how can we implement this in the classroom?
Decoding in reading
One of the most important components of setting pupils up to engage in reading for pleasure is to make the decoding process enjoyable.
It makes sense that children wouldn’t choose to read for pleasure if they found decoding frustrating, and therefore couldn’t move through a book at a reasonable speed.
As teachers, we need to focus on phonics and reading fluency instruction to ensure that our pupils have the skills to read fluently and confidently. This means teaching them to decode words accurately and at speed, so that they can read with ease and enjoyment.
We should be using a range of strategies, such as choral reading and repeated reading, to help children develop their fluency and confidence.
Another key part of reading for pleasure comes from pupils being able to think deeply about the text, and relate the story to their own experiences.
Whole-class reading activities that facilitate conversations around a book’s themes, motifs, plot, settings and character can pique pupils’ interest in how a story develops.
You can also encourage the children to share their own experiences, and relate them to the themes and ideas represented in the book.
If they’re able to connect with a story, whether that’s through personal similarities with a character; recognising an event or theme that’s occurred in their own lives; or identifying with a particular place or setting, pupils are much more likely to want to engage.
Finally, having a wide range of books to choose from is an essential element in learning to enjoy reading. Let children pick a book themselves, and provide them with the time to apply the deep understanding skills they’ve learned in class.
We also need to make sure we have plenty of diverse books in the classroom. Using eBook libraries such as those offered by Primary Ebooks NOW means that pupils can read (or listen) to a large collection of books and comics at home on any device, and schools do not need to be concerned about whether the book will return, or have to keep buying new copies all the time.
Of course, we need to ensure fair access, but according to Ofcom, nine in 10 children own their own mobile phone by the time they reach the age of 11, so providing access to these libraries and discussing the content that’s there may encourage a few more pupils.
Essentially, the point is that the term ‘reading for pleasure’ can exert too much pressure on young children who genuinely do not enjoy books, whether that’s because they find reading difficult, or they haven’t found the right title for them, yet.
What’s important for us as teachers is to do our jobs and teach our pupils how to read with confidence, so should they decide to pick up a book on their own time, they’ll be fully equipped to enjoy the experience.