Reading for pleasure? Start here

1024 683 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

What is ‘reading for pleasure?’

It’s a fact that reading for pleasure is one of the key indicators of success for children. In other words, children who enjoy reading and choose to do so (as opposed to just being made to read the assigned texts at school) will typically do better academically, which then filters through to the rest of their lives. That’s why supporting and encouraging children and teenagers to love reading and to find books or comics that speak to them and get them fired up is an absolutely crucial role of the adults in their lives: parents and guardians, teachers, librarians and, of course, the government!

As a parent, editor and school librarian, I’m enormously passionate about the topic of reading for pleasure – I could talk about it for hours and I probably have! It underpins everything I do and value here at Writer and the Wolf: all children deserve access to a range of fantastic books to choose from (and choice is key here) so that they can find the books that speak to them and that transform them into lifelong readers. They deserve fun, exciting books in the genres they’re interested in. They deserve to read fiction, non-fiction, comics, picture books, prose novels, poetry, whatever engages them most. They deserve to see children who look or sound or live like they do in the books they read so they can feel seen and valued, and they also deserve books about children who have had totally different experiences to them.

That’s why children’s book authors (and editors) have a huge responsibility to create wonderful, diverse, thoughtful, well-written, compelling stories. How else do we convince children that reading can be fun and not a chore?

What are the benefits of reading for pleasure?

The fabulous Michael Rosen, poet and former children’s laureate, is really passionate about reading for pleasure and discusses on his blog the reasons behind this link between reading and success:

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.

He goes on to outline just some of the fantastic benefits reading widely has on children, like teaching children empathy. I’m sure all my author clients are sick to death of hearing me explain that, when we read a story, we experience the events through the characters’ eyes and feel the emotions, fears, dreams, anxieties, loves that they feel and that makes us feel those things, too. Lisa Cron explains in Story Genius that, when the viewpoint character in a book we’re immersed in is scared or excited, our brain literally goes through the same chemical processes as if we were having that experience ourselves, so we get scared or excited too. That means reading a book helps readers learn to put themselves in another person’s shoes and feel what it’s like to go through the things they go through. How could this not be a brilliant thing for children to learn and apply in their own lives? It also allows them to experience scary things from a safe space (which is why horror is such an important genre for children and teenagers because they can face their fears without danger).

Reading, Rosen explains, teaches children to interpret what’s on the page and find their own meanings in a text. They’ll learn to read between the lines, figure out why characters are doing what they’re doing, learn to understand the links between images and text (particularly in comics) out make predictions about how the story might turn out. This is a valuable skill when it comes to making sense of the world around them.

And of course, when children read for fun in their own time, it means they’re better able to understand what they’re reading at school, which allows them to progress faster than they might have otherwise. UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society points out:

For younger children, reading for pleasure builds the proficiency in literacy that accelerates their learning across the school curriculum, and this becomes a virtuous circle as they move on to more demanding texts.

UCL’s Faculty of Education hosted a really interesting panel, ‘What if we wanted all children to read?’, with the one and only Joseph Coelho, Waterstones Children’s Laureate, and some very smart academics and literacy experts. In this video, Coelho talks about honouring children’s choice to read whatever they want but also their choice to become readers because ‘those children that are writing are reading’. I completely agree with him on this! When children are invited to write their own stories or poems, it can make books less intimidating and impenetrable because hey, they’re making them too! The more children play around with language and stories, the deeper they fall into the world of books and start to understand its codes, its mechanics, its potential. Coehlo says he works at ‘demystifying words’ just by asking children to memorise a couple of lines from a poem; this can take away the fear of language and empower them. He also talks about the importance of libraries, which you know I’m here for. Coehlo says he didn’t grow up in a house full of books and probably wouldn’t have become a writer if he hadn’t had access to a local library because it allows for the ‘incidental discovery of books’. This is such an excellent point, because you can walk into a library with no idea what you’re looking for and walk out with a huge pile of all sorts of stories and non-fiction – and there’s no risk involved because they’re free!

Interestingly, Gemma Moss, Professor of Literacy, explains in this video that one of the reasons boys tends to drop off the reading radar sooner than girls is that they don’t have the same support from their peers when they’re struggling with reading and tend to be more competitive with their friends so might not be comfortable admitting that they find reading a challenge and need encouragement or help. Girls generally read more widely, even if they’re at the same proficiency level as the boys in their class. Gemma, of course, waves the flag for reading and believes that ‘reading for pleasure teaches you more than a teacher can.’ She also explains that research has shown reading fiction tends to be more beneficial than non-fiction and comics because reading a novel usually immerses readers for longer so aids comprehension and reading ability better.

Alice Sullivan, Head of Research at the Social Research Institute, explains that the benefit of reading frequently for children’s academic success is four times greater than having a parent with a university degree, which itself is already a huge predictor of future success. Surprisingly, there’s also a link between reading for pleasure and doing well in maths as it ‘promotes a more self-sufficient approach to learning’ which filters through to all subjects.

What can schools do?

Children will be made to read, analyse and write about all sorts of books throughout their education. They might enjoy some of them and they’ll probably hate some (I’ll never get back those weeks I spent studying Brighton Rock – ugh). But this is not reading for pleasure. Reading for pleasure can happen in schools but it’s not about dictating what and how children read, it’s about giving them the freedom, space and time to explore, choose and read the books they want to read. It’s about respecting and valuing children’s rights as readers: the right to skip ahead, the right to not finish a book they don’t like, the right to read the same book twice, the right not to read if they don’t feel like it. I have this Pennac and Blake poster on my office wall and it helps remind me not to push my son into reading my way – it’s okay if he wants to skip to the last page or read the third book in a series first because it looks better, even if I’d never dream of doing that!

Teachers or other school staff can support reading for pleasure in lots of ways. They might introduce reading scrapbooks, ‘First Chapter Friday’, reading buddies, book clubs – all ideas explored in Scott Evans’ excellent book Reading for Pleasure. School staff can become reading role models by showing children how much they love reading for pleasure and taking the time to talk to students about their own favourite books and reading preferences, maybe even putting a poster on the classroom door listing what they’re reading that week.

I recently came across this lovely, super inspiring letter from a teacher saying goodbye and good luck to his class of readers and it’s a great reminder of all the different ways children can learn to love reading without being forced or guilted into it.

How can parents support reading for pleasure?

There’s loads parents can do to raise readers! You can be a reading role model for your children and show them you enjoy and value reading simply by picking up a book of your own and reading when they’re around. You can continue to read with or to them at bedtime, even if you think they might have outgrown it. Remember that just because a child has started reading chapter books, it doesn’t mean they can’t read or listen to picture books anymore.

Take them to the library and let them pick their own books – whatever books they might be. Yes, reading prose novels has additional benefits but that’s no use if the child isn’t enjoying them! If they want to read comics or non-fiction, brilliant. Reading is reading and anything that gets them excited about books should be celebrated. Explore your local library and get familiar with what’s on the shelves. Don’t have a library card? There’s lots you can in the library for free without being a member , like reading, making a wishlist and joining in events.

Consider other ways you can surround your child with books for free, like swapping with friends, visiting Little Free Libraries and making a birthday list.

Where can you find out more?

 


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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes