Thursday 25 February 2021

Reading for Pleasure - how does it work its magic?

I have written and spoken a great deal about Reading for Pleasure, most of which I've put in my booklet, called (handily) 'Reading for Pleasure'. In it there is a 20-point plan to put a Reading for Pleasure programme into place in schools, adapted by  teacher Ian Eagleton into an action plan. Of course I'm far from being the only person who is or has been talking about this and I've put a list of resources in the back. People will know, for example, I hope of Teresa Cremin's work at the Open University, or the work of Booktrust, the National Literacy Trust, the Reading Association, CLPE, English and Media Centre,  the former NUT (now NEU)  and many other individuals and organisations.

To recap:

Why Reading for Pleasure? - Because by every measurable method, we know that children who read widely and often do better at school, find school easier, will access more education than children who do not. One classic piece of research is 'Family scholarly culture and educational success: books and schooling in 27 nations' by M.D.R Evans et al (available through ScienceDirect).

How does Reading for Pleasure produce this seemingly magic effect without direct instruction?

To answer that question we have to look at the process of reading and how children and young people respond. I've produced a check list for teachers to discuss, adapt, argue with in whatever ways they choose.

Not in any particular order:

Reading for pleasure

creates a space for readers to interpret what's going on, figure out why characters are doing what they do, what their emotions might be, what might happen next, whether characters are behaving as we might predict they will (or not), whether people deserve what they get, what we, the readers know about in a way that is more than the characters know or understand ('dramatic irony'), how pictures do or don't relate to the written text...and much more. I believe that all reading involves us in trying to figure out things as we read and that this helps us figure out things in real life;

enables readers to experience empathy through what Philip Pullman has described as the process by which readers go through a book with characters 'holding the hand of the reader'.  Readers see what characters go through and become concerned on behalf of the characters. From the safety of being the reader we can experience something of danger, fear ('jeopardy', as film-makers call it) along with eg hope, sadness, disappointment, envy, anger, love etc etc.

enables readers to experience the mix of ideas with feelings . In education we are able to separate ideas and feelings (eg history or science might be largely about ideas but talking 'on the carpet' in primary schools might be about feelings. Fiction, poetry and drama unite these two aspects of thought so that we are drawn into a world of debate about things such as what's right and wrong but with our whole minds and bodies engaged. This is 'holistic' and has value if we want education to be ethical and moral as well as about knowledge, and the transmission of culture(s);

enables readers to make the leap from the 'oral' (conversations etc) to the written code of standard English. Most books are almost entirely written in forms of standard English. We think that enabling children to learn standard English is one of the functions or aims of education. One way for children to grab or get standard English is through 'immersion'. Books are immersive, if we read for pleasure. We are dragged through the book, being 'taught' the code of standard English as we read. If we ask children to imitate how books are written, if they read widely and often, the easier they find it. Standard English is not just a matter of 'vocabulary'. Vocabulary is part of standard English. Just as important are the structure of sentences, paragraphs, chapters: how we stick these together through almost 'invisible' means - grammar, syntax, cohesion, sequencing, structure. Reading widely and often helps us learn how to do these; 

stories and a lot of non-fiction have plots, the sequence of events and happenings that we follow. These have taken 1000s of years to develop and reading widely and often immerses us in this crucial part of culture. Think of one: the whodunnit. This kind of story in film, TV and books is part of how we view the world: who did that thing that matters- whether that's a crime, or a great contribution? Many books even for the youngest child are in effect a form of detection. They uncover slowly who might or might not be responsible for what happens. This is a powerful form of education in cause and effect, or even why or how getting cause and effect wrong is important. There are many other structures or 'genres' in stories and reading widely and often helps us learn how these work, how we can recognise what's going on as with such types as 'rags to riches', 'the lost messiah who returns', the 'lone desperado who gets revenge', the 'enabler who brings about co-operation and harmony' etc etc; 

through plot, interpretation, ideas-married-to-feelings we learn 'wisdom'. This includes 'knowledge' but wisdom is knowing how to use knowledge, or 'applied knowledge' if you like. Wisdom enables us to behave ethically, appropriately, with understanding. Most books that children read will help them acquire wisdom through watching how the characters behave, whether that's well or badly or horribly. Think 'Macbeth' where we watch someone behaving horribly and yet we learn wisdom from it. But also we can watch characters acquiring wisdom through what they have or haven't done, how they've applied what they know - or not or should have done. So books can show us directly how to think or behave, or they can do it by showing us how not to...or many variations in between;

books are full of 'devices'  that we learn as we read. If we don't read, we find it hard to get them or use them in life. By devices I mean such things as 'rhetoric', figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification), stylistic devices such as 'reveal-conceal' (where a text tells us something at the same time as suggesting there's more to come or more to figure out - mystery or vagueness as a device), changes in register between eg 'posh' and not-posh, between formal and informal, between one region and another; changes in method between eg description of setting, characters' minds, dialogue; time-shifts (flashbacks, flash-forwards etc); contrasts between settings, characters, scenes; patterns of similarity between settings, characters and scenes...and so on. We learn these networks through reading widely ad often. They are part of how books enable us to interpret;

books are full  of symbolism and representation. Take 'The Gruffalo'. At one level it is of course about a mouse meeting a big scary beast. At another level it is symbolic of a little 'me' meeting a scary 'other'. This enables the reader to be 'contained' in the story, our emotions are held safely by the 'figures' (the symbolic representation of 'big scary thing') . This idea that books have a dual meaning is a powerful part of how we get to understand the world: through symbolic thought. One thing that we hear or see represents another thing or many things at the same time. A cake might represent one day, 'desire', another day 'home', another day 'my ability to make things'. We move constantly between this way of thinking through 'association' and symbolic thought. If we read widely and often, we come across more and more examples of this and become more and more able to handle this kind of thinking;

books are full of possibility and change. In most fiction and non-fiction, characters and things change. We see that there is the possibility for the material world (the environment) to change and for us to change. This is a powerful and necessary corrective to the idea that we are stuck or that the world must be the way it is. Books take us into the way characters engage with the world. Sometimes as the characters change, so does the world; sometimes the characters change because the world changes; sometimes characters  change in response to how other characters change etc. There is a 'dynamic' situation. It's as if stories are full of cogs that can engage with each other like gears, affect each other, and then separate or come together again. Through these meetings or engagements, stuff happens - conflicts, love, anger, revenge, good luck etc. These are all possibilities for change which we can relate to in real life and ask ourselves questions like: would I do that, could I do that, should I do that, what if I was that person would I know what to do etc etc? 

as we read we make comparisons: we say to ourselves things like, 'Am I like that character?', 'Would I do things like that?', 'If I was in that situation, would I do that?' The moment we make comparisons we are on the first leg of abstract thought. We are finding commonality between feelings - the fear in the character and 'my' fear and so on. This is the first step to thinking about these abstract ideas such as fear, anger, envy etc. 

as we read we are initiated into the 'sea of texts' or intertextuality. One story is an 'echo' of another. Likewise a scene or a character. That's why we talk of archetypes. The more we read, the easier it gets to 'decode' or 'get' these echoes, archetypes and 'motifs'. 

all stories, poems, plays, scripts etc have a music in the phrasing, called prosody. We can find this in the alliteration, the assonance, the rhythms, the rhymes and repetitions,  and even in the way in which long phrases or sentences contrast with short ones. Prosody 'affects' us in mysterious and interesting ways. It's very attractive because it often feels more musical that the sound we can reproduce in our own speech. It feels special or 'heightened'. Reading widely and often initiates us into the ways of this strange use of language. Incidentally, it's used by advertising all the time.

stories - and most texts - have a pattern of pictures or imagery.  It's not always immediately obvious until you start looking for it. You start to see that characters, feelings or places are given a 'unity' through the use of the imagery used to describe them. This may be using figurative language - the metaphors used to describe a character, say. Or it may be through the lexical field: the cluster of words both literal and figurative that are attached to that place, person or feeling. Part of reading widely and often is to learn that this is part of the technique used to get us to feel character, situation and place in literature. Put another way it's part of how a writer gets us there - meaning gets us to feel what that character, place or feeling is like. 

You will be able to think of plenty of other things that reading widely and often for pleasure can do for readers. Please feel free to add. Please also feel free to fill out what I've said here with hundreds of examples from books - fiction and non-fiction to illustrate what I'm saying here, or indeed to argue against it! This is all part of how we make reading 'active'. 

In the booklet, 'Reading for Pleasure' and the booklet 'Poetry and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools' I've laid out how we can encourage children to be even more 'active' readers. The teacher James Durrant has adapted these into a matrix for teachers to use. 

There is a lot of talk in the air about how to help children 'catch up' because of the pandemic. Helping children to read widely and often for pleasure will help them find many of the positive  things that I've outlined above. This is a kind of education in a holistic way. Please feel free to make a poster of the following:

A child

A book

A read

A chat.

This is the way 

the mind grows.

Not with a test

but a tale.