Reading for pleasure far outweighs the impact of socio-economic background on pupils’ success at school, Nick Gibb has said.
The schools minister wants every primary pupil to read “at least one book a week” and is concerned that secondary English teachers start preparing pupils for GCSE-style questions too soon.
“Reading for pleasure is more important than a family’s socio-economic status in determining a child’s success at school,” Mr Gibb said yesterday.
The minister cited UCL Institute of Education research involving 6,000 children which found that reading for pleasure was more important for a child’s cognitive development, between10-16, than their parents’ level of education.
“Remarkably, the combined effect of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree”, he said.
“These findings show that given the gift of reading, a child’s life chances need not be limited by their social or economic background. Deprivation need not be destiny.”
Mr Gibb said research also showed that “even highly educated people use less sophisticated vocabulary when speaking than the words used in a typical children’s book”.
“Which is why it is so important not just to talk to children but to read to them as well,” the minister added.
Mr Gibb made his comments in a speech to mark National Storytelling Week, referencing the storytelling abilities of people from the singer Max Bygraves to Jesus.
He said that after instilling the love of reading, it was important for children to practice it often.
“For this reason, I would like to see every pupil in years 3 to 6 of primary school reading at least one book a week,” the minister told an audience at St Andrew’s Primary School in Soham, Cambridgeshire.
“‘A book a week’ should be the mantra for anyone hoping to eliminate illiteracy in this country.”
Schools, he said, must introduce pupils to the great works of the English literary canon to give pupils “an intellectual hinterland to draw upon for the rest of their lives.”
But he added: “I do question why, when I am on school visits, I see teachers in the first three years of secondary school already using English literature lessons to prepare for GCSE-style questions.
"Instead of GCSE-style analysis of the text, should those lessons not be used to spread the sheer enjoyment of reading, through introducing pupils to a wide and varied diet of English and world literature?
"I am sure this would be far better preparation for their eventual examinations than a premature obsession with exam technique.”
Mr Gibb said the world was “living through something of a golden age of children’s books”, praising the Percy Jackson and Hunger Games novels for their ability to transport young people to another time and place.
His comments come as the primary English curriculum has faced criticism for its focus on grammar – with some commentators claiming it could put children off reading entirely.
Writing on the TES website recently, Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said "an obsession" with describing language took up valuable teaching time and drew attention away from children developing their own language abilities.