Reading for pleasure is one of the single most important activities that can improve children’s lives – boosting self-esteem, bridging the attainment gap, developing critical-thinking skills, a wider vocabulary and spelling (which improves future job prospects), promoting understanding of other cultures and general knowledge, encouraging social skills, and even reducing the risk of depression.
Furthermore, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently found that reading enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status, which means it could be an important way to raise educational standards and combat social exclusion.
Reading for pleasure is also, unhappily, a trend that is on the decline. Fewer kids are reading books, magazines and comics outside of school, and more than a fifth never read in their own time.
Also, the recent report What Kids are Reading found that children above year 6 are not challenged enough by the books they read. While seven and eight-year-olds in year 3 were reading books with an average reading age of 8.8, by year 9, 13 and 14-year-olds were reading books with an average age of just 10.
This matters, because a large-scale study (Clark, 2011) found that those who reported enjoying reading very much were six times more likely than those who did not enjoy reading to read above the expected level for their age.
The research in support of this type of reading is so overwhelmingly positive, I could spend five articles just outlining it, but that’s not going to do anything towards changing the picture. What has to happen is that getting children to read – to enjoy reading – must be a primary goal for all teachers and educators in the secondary-school system, and I have a few ideas.
One study (Gambrel, 1996) found that 80 per cent of children enjoy the books they had chosen themselves. Of course this in itself doesn’t promote the “pleasure” aspect of reading.
There are a number of programmes that have proved successful, including Rooted in Reading (which involves giving students a suite of 12 reading passports) and Booked Up (no longer available, but it once offered all year 7 children a chance to choose a free book from a list of 12 selected titles), and we also know that parental support and encouragement is very influential.
Having books of their own is also paramount – one study found that 80 per cent of children who read above the expected level for their age had books of their own.
The sad truth is that we can’t change the latter situation, no matter how much we would like to. We can, however, begin to encourage a passion for reading by asking our students to be passionate, and there are a few fun ways to go about this. First of all, let them choose a book they think they would love to read. It should be appropriate for their age group/reading level, appeal to their interests (fiction or non-fiction, anything goes), and ideally be available in the school library.
If your library is low on appropriate books, it is worth requesting the free secondary school book pack from charity The Book Trust. If all else fails, many publishers will be happy to supply a proof copy or a free copy to a child who is genuinely interested, often on the premise that said child will provide an online review.
Encourage students to seek out a book they think they would really love and turn some class time over to this. Once again, The Book Trust has some brilliant lists of books in age-appropriate categories, with excellent descriptions.
Set your students on a mission to choose and then find a copy of a book that appeals. There will be a certain ingenuity and determination involved here that will feed their passion – can they find one in a local library? Put up a notice in the school newspaper to borrow one? Hit the publisher for a copy? Encourage the library to order one? Offer as many opportunities and ideas as you can.
And that’s when the fun begins. Forget about simple book reviews, which are unlikely to excite much enthusiasm. Once read, ask them to “pitch” their book. They are the author of the book and they want to find a publisher. What will they say – how can they describe their book in such a way that someone will want to publish it.
Or, instead, they could be a publisher trying to encourage bookshops to buy the book to sell. Again, they have to use considerable enthusiasm and passion to “sell” it.
There are a few reasons why this approach is an ideal way to encourage reluctant readers. The first is they choose the book, the second is that they have to lay their hands on a copy, the third is that they will read it with a view to finding the positives and presenting those positives – in a believable, animated way. The final plus is that they present for at least five to 10 minutes (let’s call it a “speed date”) to the class, thus inspiring and encouraging other students to give new books a try.
Nothing speaks louder than passion, and this approach is not just infectious but it also opens debate and discussion, and achieves a critical goal, in a lively way. What’s more, students will also be learning the important art of “selling” something they believe in. One day, and with enough training and self-belief, that “something” might just be themselves.
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Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email firstname.lastname@example.org