A Boy and His Books: The Power of Reading for Pleasure

One of us (Jessica Mason – @DrofletJess) runs a final year undergraduate module at Sheffield Hallam University, exploring all things English education with students, some of whom intend to pursue a career in the teaching profession, others of whom are just academically interested. Some have a background in pure language and linguistics, others in literature, some a combination of the two. You may have followed some of the lectures on the @ExploringEngEd account.

The module is a research-driven exploration of current issues and debates in English education and, for their first assignments, students write research essays about a topic of their choosing related to English education. They are able to include critical personal reflections of their own experiences of studying English, both at school and university.

Every year there are a few essays that are too important and salient to discussions in the profession not to ask the students whether we could share them with the StudyingFiction readership and this year is no exception. As such, I’m thrilled to introduce the first such essay, by Rebecca Evans (find her on Twitter at @beckicklesie) . This is a nuanced and insightful reflection on her son’s formative experiences with reading, writing, and literacy, and the potential power of reading for pleasure. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did, and would love to hear your thoughts.

The power of reading for pleasure: organically enhancing literacy, academic achievement, and personal development in the classroom

 ‘When we read, we really have no choice – we must develop literacy’

(Krashen 2004:150).

In recent years, studies investigating the importance of ‘reading for pleasure’ have presented significant evidence (Department for Education 2012: 3) in support of its positive influence on children’s academic attainment, personal development, and social skills (Allan et al. 2005). Research (Clark and Rumbold 2006; Clark 2011) reliably reveals that children generally enjoy reading, with only one in ten children, aged 8 to 17, claiming to ‘not enjoy reading at all’ (Clark 2011: 14).  Yet, there is a growing, substantial body of research that indicates young people are becoming increasingly unlikely to read for pleasure (Clark and Rumbold 2006; Twist et al. 2007; OECD 2010).

Inspired by a personal account, which demonstrates academic and personal benefits of positive reading relationships, this paper aims to position ‘reading for pleasure’ as fundamental to educational achievement and personal growth, through the discussion of scholastic obstacles and strategies for motivation. It understands reading for pleasure as a ‘creative activity’ (Holden 2004); ‘reading that we do of our own free will, anticipating the satisfaction that we will get from the act of reading’ (Clark and Rumbold 2006:5).

Just a boy and his books

A little under three years ago, my son was approaching Key Stage One (KS1) Standard Attainment Tests (SATs). Having relocated from Lancashire to South Yorkshire the August prior, changing schools in the process, some experts would suggest he experienced educational disruption, potentially affecting academic performance (Audette et al. 1993; Astone and McLanahan 1994) and social behaviour (Fields 1997; Mantzicopoulos and Knutson 2000), amongst other factors (Rumberger 2003:8-11). Yet, throughout the entirety of his schooling, literacy had always presented as a difficulty. No matter the educational setting, he consistently worked slightly below ‘Age Related Expectations’ (ARE). For all the variation of accessible books at home, hearing stories each day, and engaging daily with the appropriate banded schoolbooks, in Year 1, his phonics screening check indicated that he wasn’t progressing sufficiently. He continued to struggle with weekly class spellings, no matter how much he practised at home, after school.

I invested in various phonics programmes. I continued to read with him and to him. We spent almost all weekends working through the ‘sight words’ 100 High Frequency Word Spelling List in its entirety, using the advised five-stage ‘look-say-cover-write-check’ method, ‘reconceptualised’ from the traditional working memory ‘look-cover-write-check’ process (Hammond 2004:15). Despite our efforts to improve his literacy, and although academics (Nies and Belfiore 2006; Cates et al. 2007) conclude this specific spelling strategy is ‘effective for improving recall of spelling patterns… [and] autonomy in spelling’ (Westwood 2008:29), my son made little progress across reading, writing, or spelling. As he began his Year 3 learning in 2015, he was diagnosed with mild dyslexia.

Regardless of results from national or ongoing educational assessments, my son’s relationship with reading prospered. Books had always been a comfort, reading a bonding activity we shared together. Stories are more than words on pages; we enjoy discussing characters and plotlines, watching film and stage adaptations, and engaging in book-themed activities, games, and crafts at home, locally, and across the country. My son uses the library, is a member of their book club, and reads out of choice each summer to complete the national Summer Reading Challenge (The Reading Agency 2017). He is a Sheffield Book Fairy (The Book Fairies 2017) and hides his favourite books across the city, for other children to find and enjoy. Furthermore, he watches me read to relax and enjoy the experience of engaging with various texts.

His ability to read for pleasure remained, regardless of academic attainment, because school achievement wasn’t the primary motivation. He has grown to know reading as an enjoyable, immersive pastime. Although he initially made slow progress into independent reading, every step was an incredible confidence boost. It was a stride towards him proudly identifying as an independent reader. He was encouraged by his capability to enjoy a wider selection of books, in his own company. His reading flourished further. Due to his desire to pick up a book, his love of reading, he pushed further and progressed at a greater rate. He is now an avid reader, who has his head ‘stuck in a book’ at every opportunity. As noted by Clark and Rumbold (2006: 9), it is no coincidence that due to this interest and drive, his literacy skills have improved significantly. At the end of Year 4, my son was working well above ARE in writing and reading for the first time in his schooling. He had achieved free-reader status, and had also begun writing, illustrating, printing, and selling his own comic book stories to friends and family. Additionally, he capably draws upon complex themes within narratives to sensitively explore emotive, challenging subjects, alone, and in discussion with me and other family members.

My son’s accomplishments in the face of academic difficulties, are a prime example of the ‘Matthew effect in reading’ (Stanovich 1986), which refers to a private ‘circular relationship between practice and achievement’ (Clark and Rumbold 2006:16). That is,

‘better readers tend to read more because they are motivated to read, which leads to improved vocabulary and better [literacy] skills’

(Clark and Rumbold 2006: 16).

This stimulates debate concerning the literacy teaching methods that are typically adopted throughout primary education. Specifically, it invites the question of whether increased capacity should be created, across classroom resources and timetabling, to enable children to experience pleasurable reading, with an aim of promoting the reciprocal facilitation between reading and literacy skills, as well as heightened cultural awareness (Meek 1991), personal development and wellbeing (Holden 2004; Clark and Rumbold 2006:7). Or, rather, does responsibility to foster this reader relationship lie with parents?

Creative reading in the curriculum and the classroom

Across all key stages of learning, the Department for Education (DfE) has overtly integrated ‘reading for pleasure’ within the overarching pedagogical aims of the current National curriculum in England: English programmes of study (2014). This statutory governmental guidance for educators asserts that through ‘widespread reading for enjoyment’ schools can ‘promote high standards of language and literacy’. What’s more, the curriculum advises that schools can equip children with skills integral to their cultural, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual development, simply through encouraging a ‘love of literature’ (DfE 2014).

While reading for enjoyment does feature within the premise of the National Curriculum, this does not directly represent how a child’s attainment is tested. No aspect of the National Literacy Strategy (NLS), including SATs, investigates the child’s interest in reading. Nor does it reward them for developing a rich reader relationship with the text. In contrast, children’s authors, (for example Powling et al. 2003) argue that the NLT has instead discouraged the concept of reading for pleasure entirely.  Rather, focus is placed on a child’s understanding of, and ability to, demonstrate standard cognitive reading practices. This scopes a number of comprehension centred tasks, as detailed, for example, in the KS1 and KS2 marking schemes performance descriptors (see below)

KS1 Marking Schemes Performance Descriptor (DfE 2015)
KS1 Marking Schemes Performance Descriptor (DfE 2015a: 17)
KS2 Marking Schemes Performance Descriptor (DfE 2015)
S2 Marking Schemes Performance Descriptor (DfE 2015b: 17)

While reading for pleasure has been found to improve ability in this area (Cipielewski and Stanovich 1992; Elley 1994; Cox and Guthrie 2001), it is not a prerequisite of a child meeting the detailed age expected attainment levels. Consequently, due to the pressures placed on teachers to ensure children achieve such targets, the importance of reading for pleasure can quickly become lost in the classroom, as reading and analysing a text specifically to satisfy marking frameworks become a priority. As noted by Harris (2017), the

‘assessment regime has created a culture that has allowed for[…] schools with a very narrow curriculum[, in which] teaching and learning [is] specifically aimed at “passing” the test’.

As such, ‘manufactured readings’ (Giovanelli and Mason 2015) are consistently imposed upon young people throughout education. As they are ‘denied the space to engage in their own process of interpretation’ (Giovanelli and Mason 2015: 46), the opportunity to experience their own authentic reading, to build an enjoyable, rich, individual reader relationship with the text, is diminished.

This viewpoint reflects findings presented by Goodwyn (2012), whose research investigated English teacher reactions to the KS3 and KS4 Framework for English on literature teaching. From the 90 per cent of Goodwyn’s participants who chose to respond by providing comments, there was an overwhelming opinion that ‘literature teaching had become much more instrumental, dominated by narrow objectives and focused on textual extracts’ (2012: 220). Teachers involved in the study also expressed their ‘frustration’ that English teaching had become ‘scripted’ with ‘the emphasis being constantly on the assessment objectives’ rather than allowing students a ‘personal’ or ‘creative’ relationship with texts (Goodwyn 2012:220-221).

As noted by Sheldrick-Ross et al. (2005:244), ‘the gift of reading can best be given by another reader who models what it is like to get pleasure from reading’. While around 75 per cent of training English teachers report they ‘have always loved reading’ (Goodwyn 2002: 66), the degree of disillusion induced by stringent national strategies minimises the opportunity for much ‘enjoyment of reading’ to be demonstrated in the classroom. Pupils, therefore, are missing out on the chance to benefit from some of the primary positive influencers in their development as readers.

‘Booking up’ ideas on attainment

My son’s accomplishments merely represent a solitary example of the benefits to be gained from the enjoyment of reading. While ‘free voluntary reading alone will not ensure attainment of the highest levels of literacy, it will at least ensure an acceptable level’ (Krashen, 2004:149-150), forming a receptive, contextualised foundation for related learning:

‘When children read for pleasure[…] they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called ‘language skills’ many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers’

(Krashen, 2004: 149).

This assertion is further supported by Clark and Rumbold’s (2006) research, which cites several academics to establish that reading for pleasure benefits text comprehension, grammar, and reading ability, amongst numerous other personal benefits, including increased general knowledge and improved social and emotional wellbeing (2006: 9-10). Moreover, children provided with the necessary space and resources to become active readers perform better across the board in other school subjects, including mathematics, regardless of their socioeconomic background (Sullivan and Brown 2013). It becomes apparent that, whatever your stance concerning the role of English in the curriculum, reading for pleasure can successfully fulfil subject objectives across its incarnations.

While evidence (Baker and Scher 2002; Flouri and Buchanan 2004; Clark and Rumbold 2006) does strongly suggest that children are more likely to develop an authentic love of reading if they are from a home environment where reading is valued, educational professionals can but try to influence home-based reading activity. With this in mind, it seems only essential that learning strategies and educational resources be re-designed to give children of all genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, the chance to engage with texts for enjoyment in a school environment. Given whether a child reads for pleasure is the superlative indicator of their educational success (OECD 2002), schools have a responsibility to build opportunity for this experience into their literacy and PSHE frameworks. The foundation for lifelong reading may be established at home, in the early years, but ‘we also know that it’s never too late to start reading for pleasure’ (Sheldrick-Ross et al. 2005: 244).

Self-selecting for success

Reading for pleasure is an accessible activity, which enables children to succeed academically, and thrive developmentally, socially, and emotionally. Simply through systematising schooling, so key motivators are incorporated, educational and personal experience can be enhanced. While it would be inappropriate to suggest contributions to English curriculum reforms here, ample academics have explored why children choose to read. A consistent principle finding places ‘freedom of choice’ as a vital variable (Krashen 2004; Gambrell 1996; Schraw et al. 1998; Moss and Hendershot 2002; Clark and Phythian-Sence 2008), with pupils who self-select texts reading more and generally demonstrating a higher level of ‘grammar, vocabulary, reading, comprehension, and spelling’ (Krashen 2004: 2). While school reading programmes, or banded books, are designed to incorporate phonics and other KS1-2 literacy objectives, the enjoyment of free reading overrides any prescriptive reading structures, with research ‘finding… “no [academic] difference” between free readers and students in traditional programs’ (Krashen 2004:2).

Perhaps, most importantly, just as my son struggled in literacy, pupils can present as reluctant readers for myriad reasons. ‘We must therefore address the possible issues that make an individual a reluctant reader and use creative solutions to combat this disengagement’ (Clark and Rumbold 2006: 27), guiding children to self-select the right book at the right time, to facilitate an independent relationship with reading. Although the conventional ‘class reader’ approach may function to address ‘cultural heritage’ awareness, it rarely serves the individual child, their aptitude for language and literacy, or their personal development, as a rounded pedagogical approach. Other influential strategies, including ownership of books (Clark and Poulton 2011), reading-related rewards (Clark and Rumbold 2006), and child-teacher interaction (Cremin et al. 2009) are known to be highly effective motivators. Nonetheless, it seems that simply allowing children to read what they want, when they want, is the most integral, initial step we can take to organically enhance children’s’ literacy, academic achievement, and personal development.

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2 thoughts on “A Boy and His Books: The Power of Reading for Pleasure

  1. Great piece of work Rebecca, you have portrayed, his problems and the over coming of them with caring and science. Well done


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