Sunday 11 September 2022

Reading for Pleasure: how and why does it enable children to do better at school? What can we do to foster it? What creative ways of responding and interpreting help in this too?

Increasingly, people in education are becoming interested in Reading for Pleasure (RfP). There are some great books and booklets about it. People like the National Literacy Trust, CLPE, UKLA, Booktrust, Reading Rocks and Teresa Cremin at the Open University have researched it and developed a variety of ways of encouraging it and fostering it. Over at you can find several pages on Research Evidence for RfP. The NUT (one of the predecessors to the NEU) produced an excellent booklet on RfP written by the children's writer (and friend of mine) Alan Gibbons. I've written a booklet on it ('Reading for Pleasure'). And so on. 

On the other hand, I hear of things like this: school libraries closing down, local libraries closing, some school managements questioning why a teacher might be 'just' reading with children and school students. In effect, there are two pulls going on - the pull towards RfP and a pull against it.

With this in mind, I think the RfP side has to be clear not only that RfP does have a huge positive effect but also investigates how. How and why does browsing, choosing and having fun reading books have a knock-on effect of enabling children and young people to do well at school (and a lot of other things beside, but for the moment, this is about an argument to do with education)? 


Clearly, one key matter is how reading widely and often (fiction, non-fiction and many different forms) is a form of induction or initiation or immersion into written standard English. We don't speak written standard English. It's a different 'code' or 'register' or even a kind of different dialect. When we speak to each other, we interrupt, hesitate, repeat ourselves, use many words like 'this', 'that', 'it' etc because it's clear from context. When we speak, we quite often don't finish a thought and tail off because others around you know what you're talking about. When we write, there are forms that we hardly ever use in daily talk. One of the most obvious is the idea that we write in 'complete' sentences using a 'finite' verb. Another is the way in writing, we 'front load' a lot of the time. Go back over what you've just read here and see how many times I've used a word of phrase before the 'main clause' - eg 'Increasingly, 'Over at', 'On the other hand' etc. We do some of this when we speak but by no means as much as we do in formal or even semi-formal written standard English. 

As an experiment, open any children's book, look at the sentences - the narrative rather than the dialogue of course, and try to say them as if they are part of a conversation. For most of it, it just doesn't work. You can't switch 'codes'. So if we ask ourselves, what does this mean for child-readers, it becomes very significant. It means that we ask of children and young people to make the leap from spoken English to written English.  Can we take it as self-evident then, that the more that children and young people are exposed to this written spoken English, the easier they will find it when they come across unfamiliar, new and challenging texts in school - whether that's fiction or a science text book or whatever? I think so.

The Strategies of Writing

Writing is more than language! It's also the strategies we use when we write: paragraphs, chapters, plot lines, methods of narrating, ways of indicating speech, reported speech, inner thought, use of figurative language, how we indicate time, how we switch time with flashbacks and flashforwards, how we 'foreground' people or things, how we 'reveal-conceal' ie indicate that there is more to know than what is being told at that very moment, the way we use 'allusions' to anything outside of the text in hand, motifs, tropes, uses of archetypes and stereotypes, uses of symbols...and so on. Of course, over the years in school, some of this is taught but for children and young people who have been reading widely and often (RfP), the job of 'getting' all this stuff, is many, many times easier.

The Strategies of Reading

Part of this I've already covered in the sense that some of the strategies of reading are a matter of picking up on the things that I've mentioned in the previous paragraph. There are other aspects though: eg such things as learning what it feels like to care about a text ie how we are 'affected' by it, through such psychological processes as 'identifying' with a character, through the flow of emotions we have towards and against characters, flow of emotions we have in scenes or the 'events' or outcomes of a scene of a text. In my booklet 'Poetry and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools', I've created a 'grid' of these responses and these also partly explain how it is that reading widely and often (RfP) can enable children and young people to access education more easily. I'll summarise them briefly here: 

When we read we use our experience of life in order to understand what we read. This means that our memories and even latent or sub-conscious memories are brought into play. We might say that some reading validates or challenges our experience. However it does, it involves us in acts of comparison between our own lives and those in the writing. Anything that invites us to make comparisons about our own experience leads us towards being able to generalise about our own behaviour in relation to others. We might call that a form of intelligence.

When we read, we use our experience of other texts. Again, this involves many subtle forms of comparison at lots of different levels. We are in a sense 'reminded'  all the time as we read of the texts  in oru minds that precede the one we are reading. This can be at the level of 'form' (eg I recognise that what I am reading is, let's say, a sports report, or an invite to a party, a sonnet, an adventure story, a write-up of a court case etc etc.) Reading widely and often enables us to build up a repertoire in our heads so that we can recognise what it is we are reading as we read it. At another level, this kind of 'intertextual' knowledge enables us to pick up on how plots work, how genres work eg whodunnits, rom-coms, comedy, tragedy. At yet another level, it's how we recognise 'types' like the rags-to-riches character, or the dangerous stranger, or the road-movie companions etc etc. 

A fundamental part of reading is a bit like solving puzzles. All texts have 'gaps'. No text says it all. This means that while we read what is in front of us, we are asking questions of it, trying to answer those questions, coming with alternative interpretations of what is happening, what might happen, why something happened that way. There are words, phrases, allusions, unfamiliar expressions, unexplained acts and phenomena, implied connections, possible causes for effects, possible motives that are not fully explained...and so on. I've often given the example of my 3 year old son, asking us to read him 'Where the Wild Things Are' over and over again. As we read, he hardly said a word until one day, when it got to the part where Max wants to be 'where somebody loved him best of all', he burst out with, 'Mummy!'. In that one word and one moment, he revealed the intellectual effort he had been making to figure out this mysterious story. The text and pictures are full of gaps and puzzles like, say, why is his room so empty, why did the room or how did the trees become 'the world all around' (what a strange and mysterious idea), how could he sail through 'weeks' or even a 'year' (what does that mean?), how come there's a boat with his name on it? Where did that come from?  Who are the wild things? How does he know who to tame them? What do they sing when they have a 'wild rumpus'? What's the tune? And then this mysterious sentence about wanting to be 'where' 'somebody' loved him best of all. Who is this 'somebody' and 'where' is it? Our son decided it was 'Mummy' but note there is no 'Mummy' in the story. There's a 'mother' who we never see and her two acts towards Max are to send him to his room and possibly (though we are never told) it is her who leaves him some hot supper at the end. She may well  'love' Max but it's not exactly effusive, is it? I'll suggest that there is no definitive answer to these questions. It takes an intellectual effort to think about the connections and causes and motives going on.

My 'big' suggestion, though, is that this is at the core of why and how RfP does the work of enabling us to access education. We have to feel, think and reason in order to 'get' what's going on. We will also have to use our awareness and knowledge of clues and sequences in a story or in any narrative in order to make sense of the bit that we're reading. I'll suggest that our son used his many readings (hearings, actually) to enable to figure out that that mysterious phrase meant (for him) that Max wanted to be with his 'Mummy'. Note also that that leap by our son had to be done through 'identification'. He had to 'be' Max and think along the lines, 'If I was Max, or Max was me, I would in that situation with the Wild Things want to be with my Mummy who I believe loves me best of all.'  


I've already talked about making comparisons. We make analogies between what we read in a text with events or feelings in our own lives but also analogies between texts. We say, 'Oh that's like...' as a way of explaining (or making ourselves familiar with) what's going on in a bit of writing. I'm going to suggest that the moment we 'analogise' we are on the first rung of a ladder that leads to 'abstract thought', 'abstract ideas', 'abstract words'. Whether we do science or humanities in education, we are constantly being asked to reach generalisations and abstract ideas. The route to these, more often than not, is through lists of two or more similar things. So, we might discuss 'erosion', say, and we're asked to make a list of different ways in which a cliff is eroded - wind, rain, frost, waves etc. Different ways are grouped under one heading, 'erosion'. We compare the effects of each of those ways and say that they do things differently but they still end up wearing the cliff away. This kind of thinking and way of thinking goes on again and again in education. My argument here is that if we read widely and often, we do something very similar every time we read. Back with our son and the Wild Things: the line says that Max felt 'lonely' and he wanted to be where somebody 'loved' him best of all. Our son created a list of two: he said (in effect) that he knew of another example like that: him and his mother. I'm going to say here then that is at the root or the heart of what we do over and over again in education but it happens all the time when we read for pleasure. Comparisons and analogies in our head again and again and again. And that's my argument about how it is that RfP does its work of making education accessible.

How to Foster this Kind of Reading

In 'Reading for Pleasure', I've grouped together different strategies to help teachers and schools put a Reading for Pleasure policy in place. I didn't do it out of my own head. It came from listening to people doing it. However, there is another aspect to this: how can we make reading itself enjoyable and at the same time 'listens' to the kinds of process that I've been talking about here.

In brief, these concern the kinds of questions we ask children and school students; the kinds of activities around books that we ask them to do; the kinds of exploration of texts that we invite them to do. 

Questions: these can be open-ended. To release how are we 'affected' by a text, we can invite children to monitor their flows of emotion to or against characters or how they feel through a scene. Older children can have great fun making graphs of these! 

To release how our experiences are brought to bear when we read, we can ask, is there anything that you've read here that makes you think of anything that has ever happened to you or someone you know? 

To release how our we use the texts we know when we read, we can ask, is there anything you've ever read, seen on TV, seen in a film, in a theatre, heard in a song, or anywhere else, that you're reminded of as you read something in this book/text? Any link that you notice? Or can think of?

To release those 'gap' moments we can ask, were you 'puzzled' by anything, any moment, anything that someone said, or the way that something was written? And then we can follow that up with different ways to 'fill' those gaps ie different interpretations. Or another way to unlock this is to ask if children have any questions that they would like to ask anyone in the story or ask the author. We can collect up those questions and invite people to answer them. People can role-play characters and we can ask them to help answer the questions and puzzles. 

(Useful here is Aidan Chambers' book 'Tell Me and the Learning Environment'. In my booklet, 'Poetry and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools', there's a grid that I worked out with teacher James Durran of 'trigger questions' that will help release responses and reflections on these reading processes.)

Creative Ways to Unlock Texts

There are of course many creative ways to 'get into' texts which will release interpretations, and enable the young readers to explore emotion, meaning and relevance. There are many forms of re-telling that will do this: retelling as a piece of story-telling; using mime to tell some or all of the piece of writing; using art, video and audio to re-tell and interpret; using music, movement and dance; using pottery, ceramics and model-making. 

We can use freeze-frames, hot-seating, and interviews of characters of even objects in a specific moment in a scene to unlock what is going on: what can you see? what can you hear? what are you thinking? what do you want? what do you not want? what are you afraid of? what do you hope for? 

We can ask readers to come up with sequels and prequels to the story. To do this, the reader (writer now!) will have to gather up what they know of the story in order to make the prequel or sequel work. They will almost certainly have to use all the so-called skills that we try to get them to develop through 'comprehension' in order to write a prequel or sequel! 

As an aside here, I'll make an educational point: for hundreds of years, one of the most high status things that people could do was 'interpret' one piece of art with another. For example, every stately home or art gallery or classical music concert or opera anyone ever goes to is jam packed full of one art form interpreting another: paintings of scenes from Greek myths,  operas and ballets based on Shakespeare plays, poems, sculptures of famous scenes from classical stories and so on. In education, the highest status of 'interpretation' is either a comprehension test or an 'essay' about a book. Why have we reduced 'interpretation' to something so narrow?

Even so, I'm going to suggest that if we use RfP methods of reading and interpreting along the lines I'm suggesting here, it will be all easier for children and school students to do the comprehensions and essays anyway! In fact, those pupils who read widely and often do just that, as the research keeps showing over and over again.