Ideas to foster a love of reading in secondary-age students

Written by: Dr Sarah McGeown | Published:

How can we continue to foster a love of reading and books during lockdown and remote or blended learning? Dr Sarah McGeown offers some tips and ideas for secondary school teachers


Promoting book reading and encouraging young people to read for pleasure is crucial as teachers and parents navigate on-going national lockdown and remote/blended learning.

While the benefits of books for developing reading and language skills are well-documented (Mol & Bus, 2011), books offer so much more for young people during these challenging times.

Books introduce young people to new concepts and ideas, they can immerse them in fictional worlds, and evoke a whole range of emotions (Mar et al, 2011). Books also have the potential to develop and challenge thinking, improve empathy skills, perspective-taking (Vezzali et al, 2014) and social abilities (Mar, 2018).

In our own research with young people (Wilkinson et al, 2020), we found that books offer students an opportunity to relax, feel calm, laugh and experience escapism – all increasingly important during the pandemic and the well-documented impact it is having on mental health.

Furthermore, books allow opportunities for students to pursue their interests and learn new things. Finding ways to promote and encourage more book reading among young people is essential for both learning and wellbeing.


Why is this important now?

It is important as we navigate national lockdowns and blended learner that we explore the different ways to support students’ learning and emotional wellbeing while they are unable to see their teachers and friends in person.

A recent guide for teachers on promoting reading for pleasure, which I wrote along with ed-tech provider Renaissance Learning (see further information), drew upon research from the National Literacy Trust (2020). In their research they found that only 23.2 per cent of students aged 11 to 14, 16.3 per cent of students aged 14 to 16, and 19.2 per cent of students aged 16 to 18 reported daily reading outside of class (Clark & Teravainen-Goff, 2020).

This research was based on a very large sample (59,906) of young people aged nine to 18 in 2019. During national lockdown and on-going remote learning in 2021 perhaps we have an opportunity to encourage more young people to read for pleasure at home and reap the benefits that come from doing so.

Indeed, times of change and uncertainty can be incredibly unsettling, but they also offer an opportunity to reflect on our current habits and practices, and think about positive changes that we would like to make. Focusing on improving young people’s relationships with books has both learning and wellbeing benefits. We need to connect young people with books that resonate with them, and align with their interests and abilities.

However, teachers can struggle to develop a love of book reading among young people. Some who arrive at secondary school have never developed the habit of regular reading, while others have sadly lost it. While some young people report that they simply do not enjoy reading books, this can stem from poor perceptions of themselves as readers or the absence of positive experiences with books. So how can schools, teachers and families encourage positive reading habits among more young people at this time?


Why students choose not to read

It is important to understand why young people are not choosing to read. In our recent research (Wilkinson et al, 2020) with adolescents (aged 15 to 16), they said that they did not have enough time to read, as school, homework, revision, etc were regarded as a priority over reading books for pleasure.

Others reported being avid readers as children but that they had just lost the habit, while others mentioned distractions, specifically technology, but also seeing friends and playing sports, as taking up their time.

Book reading was also seen to be effortful compared to other activities such as watching television. Others felt that reading books was not cool, or that it was difficult to find books to interest them, while other students said that no one really encouraged them to read for pleasure anymore.

These insights from young people reveal potential ways to encourage more book reading – understanding the barriers that exist for young people is important. Furthermore, some of the barriers that once existed do not exist at present, making this a good time to try and foster or rekindle a love of reading.


Choice is important

The research stresses the importance of student choice, therefore it is important that students have access to a diverse range of books to ensure they can find something that aligns with their reading interests and abilities.

However, it is important to appreciate that less experienced readers may need more support to make good reading choices (i.e., those that align with their interests and abilities).

For some schools, providing access may be a challenge as pupils at home may not have access to the library, but there are ways to remedy this. Digital books can offer a solution for some. Alternatively, many schools have successfully run library “pop-ups” and exchange programmes in a Covid-friendly way.

You could also use current booklists and reports such as the annual What Kids Are Reading research (Topping, 2020) to understand what young people are reading and find out more about these books to see if they can be offered in school or online.


Set aside quality time for reading

Regardless of the age or stage of the student, implementing a regular time for young people to read for pleasure each day is important, and this practice can begin even during lockdown. Students have to juggle a range of subjects but this also offers the chance for them to explore a range of difference texts, genres and topics that are related to their subject areas.

Encouraging regular reading now, while school sites are closed to the majority of students, can be a good way to develop positive reading habits, which can be maintained when schools re-open for all, with time put aside each week for pupils to read for pleasure. This could even form part of the school’s wellbeing strategy, where pupils are encouraged to focus on themselves and find a book that resonates with them.


Access books in different ways

Digital books offer the same benefits as a physical books and can support young people’s language and literacy development. Alternatively, audio books can be an excellent way for young people to engage and may be particularly effective at encouraging less frequent readers. Audio books do not put pressure on the young person to read themselves, they simply get to enjoy the book and all the rich experiences that come with it.


Make it social

Reading does not always have to be a solitary activity, and while there are possibly more opportunities for discussions about reading in school, discussions can also take place online.

Ways to make reading more social include supporting a student-led book club. This gives students an opportunity to chat about and recommend books to each other and would work well in all year groups.

Students should be given an opportunity to decide on the books to discuss, and teachers or librarians can join and lead the discussion if necessary.

Regular meetings at a weekly book club with peers allows students to enjoy reading as part of a wider social activity, connect with their friends, and share their own thoughts and experiences of different books. Furthermore, book clubs may also encourage young people to expand the genres they read.

  • Dr Sarah McGeown is a senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on children's and adolescents’ reading development, more specifically understanding what motivates them to read, and how to encourage more children and young people to choose to read in school and at home.


Further information & resources

  • Clark & Teravainen-Goff : Children and young people’s reading in 2019, National Literacy Trust, March 2020: http://bit.ly/3ajlvam
  • Mar: Stories and the promotion of social cognition, Current Directions in Psychological Science (27,4), June 2018: http://bit.ly/3anQimF
  • Mar et al: Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading, Cognition and Emotion (25,5), August 2011: http://bit.ly/3amHugJ
  • Mol & Bus: To read or not to read: A metaanalysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood, Psychological Bulletin (137,2), March 2011: https://bit.ly/3dd3e0r
  • Vezzali et al: The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice, Journal of Applied Psychology (45,2), July 2014: https://bit.ly/3aj5bXk
  • Renaissance Learning: A Guide to Reading Enjoyment: www.renlearn.co.uk/reading-enjoyment/
  • Topping: What kids are reading, Renaissance Learning, 2020: www.renlearn.co.uk/what-kids-are-reading-2020/
  • Wilkinson et al: Reading during adolescence: Why adolescents choose (or do not choose) books, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (64,2), July 2020: https://bit.ly/3dfZStE


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