September 27, 2023
Reflections on Reading
By Patrick Cragg
This week’s Wednesday Wisdom is authored by English teacher and GCSE examiner, Patrick Cragg who shares some honest reflections on the importance of reading for pleasure and his own memories of a childhood where books and bedtime stories featured highly.
What’s your earliest book memory? Mine is sitting on my bed, probably aged seven or eight, while my dad reads Winnie The Pooh. It’s Eeyore’s birthday, and Pooh has brought him a jar of honey as a present. Piglet has brought him a balloon. Except that Pooh can’t walk five paces with a jar of honey without eating it all, and Piglet can’t walk five paces without tripping over his own feet. So now Eeyore has an empty jar for his birthday present and, instead of a balloon, a “small piece of damp rag”. “What colour was this balloon,” Eeyore asks in his melancholy, somewhat passive-aggressive way, “when it was a balloon?” I remember laughing a lot, which is tribute to my dad’s comic timing and to A. A. Milne’s fine ear for absurdity.
I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, with parents who loved to read, where reading was held in high esteem, and where the choosing, borrowing and buying of books was a common occurrence. I grew up as an avid reader, and later became a student and teacher of books and literature.
Even for children who aren’t so well-supplied with books at home, childhood and stories go hand-in-hand. Whenever your child first sits on the carpet at Nursery or Reception, you can be sure that the teacher at the front is going to read them a story. I’ve found that even much older students of sixteen or seventeen can be lulled to quiet, attentive listening if you start reading to them.
So a love of books seems to come very naturally to us, and almost everyone thinks of reading as a positive, worthwhile, safe, and rewarding activity. But sustaining a reading habit through the teens and into adulthood isn’t nearly so easy as it should be. Competition increases for the time and attention of teenagers, and the amount of free time they have grows less. Between the demands of homework, clubs and activities, the attention of their peers, and the ever-present screens, social media and streaming, what fifteen-year-old has the time to sit curled up with a book?
It won’t surprise you to learn that young people’s engagement with reading for pleasure is at an all-time low. In recent research by the Literacy Trust, only 43% of young people aged between 8 and 18 reported enjoying reading in their spare time.
All schools promote “reading for pleasure”: the independent, extracurricular reading associated with so many positive outcomes for children’s futures. But few schools would want your child to choose books entirely by the pleasure they provide: there is an expectation that children “challenge themselves” by reading books in their spare time that include unfamiliar vocabulary, or increasingly complex ideas. In schools that use online programmes to track students’ reading, “reading for pleasure” is monitored with data and comprehension tests. The idea of compulsory pleasure is a difficult one to sell to students, and children don’t gravitate towards any activity purely on the basis that it’ll be good for them in the long-term.
It’s also easy to forget – especially for English teachers! – how hard some children find reading. Reading a novel is like constructing a long and complex movie in your imagination, following the characters and story for weeks at a time. Reading a novel simply isn’t a “pleasure” if you can’t do this. Children need an opportunity to build reading skills at an appropriate pace. Just being told to read more often won’t necessarily help.
And of course, maintaining a reading habit gets even harder in adulthood, especially when you’re a parent and time for yourself is always at a premium. Since becoming a parent, I’ve been through reading slumps where I barely turned a page for months at a time. If it wasn’t for audiobooks, my consumption of any kind of literature, outside of what I was preparing for school, would have been zero. Even for enthusiastic readers, the world of books can seem daunting and overwhelming.
However challenging it can be for children to sustain a reading habit, study after study has shown the long-term benefits that come from regularly reading for pleasure. Benefits which are far wider-ranging than you might imagine, and extend well beyond the classroom.
It is worth reading the Book Trust’s extraordinary, evidence-based list of benefits that reading brings to children and young people’s lives. It is hard to believe that reading can be such an important lever when it comes to social mobility and that it can enhance not just cognitive skills but also children’s mental health, wellbeing and social-emotional development.
In a recently published study from Cambridge University, researchers in China and the UK found a strong link between reading for pleasure in childhood and better mental health in adolescence. Children who had been regular readers when they were young experienced less stress and depression, improved attention and healthier sleeping patterns.
Reading clearly extends children’s vocabulary, comprehension skills, and general knowledge but reading for pleasure has a demonstrable impact on numeracy and mathematics too. Reading for pleasure can help students overcome social barriers and inequality. A child growing up in poverty who is read to regularly at age five increases their likelihood of financial success into their 30s. Reading for pleasure can outweigh the impact on children’s progress of parental education, parental socioeconomic status, supervision of homework and other extra-curricular activities.
Any English teacher, or indeed any avid reader, would add their personal reflection on what reading offers. Reading is an escape. It’s an infinite world of other voices and other places, real and imagined. It is a place where we can partake and overhear thousands of conversations, gain insights into other cultures and countries, live in someone else’s shoes and inhabit others’ minds. Reading is intensely private, beaming thoughts from the mind of the writer into that of the reader, but also opens up a shared community of readers and enthusiasts. Reading means never being bored on a train. And of course, literature is art, and creating or enjoying it is an end in itself, regardless of any benefit you can measure.
If you have a school-age child who is a reluctant reader, turning them back on to the world of books can seem like an uphill battle. Try not to think of imposing reading instead of the activities that are currently occupying their time. No devoted gamer will willingly give up their Xbox in exchange for more reading time. Think of reading as another part of their diet, not a substitute for something else they like.
It is always a good idea to attune to your child’s interests and to take them to places where they will be around books in the first instance. You might stroll into the library and they might see a whole rack of magazines about their favourite hobby or they might spend some time looking through the young adult section and wonder what other tweens and teens are reading. Don’t put them under pressure or scold them for not reading but rather model how you enjoy taking books in and out of the library. Talk to them about something you have read or are reading with friends. Let them see you on the sofa with a book rather than phone in hand. Ask them to read things out to you from your book and ask them what they think about particular themes you are reading about. Model to them how a book can completely change your mind, get you thinking about something new or transport you to a new and wonderful world. If your child is close to their grandparents or other family members, they might be receptive to a book donated by a close family member that was their favourite book when they were growing up! Perhaps your child is watching a television or Netflix series but did they know it was also once a book? As a family, perhaps we could read the book and see how it compares?
If your older teen avidly social media, you might want to lean into that interest and suggest they take a peek at #BookTok, and its close relation #BookTube and provide you with some ideas for a new book to read. You never know, that interest might rub off!
With younger children, screen-free evenings are important to prepare the way for bedtime. Getting into the habit of ‘bed and story’ is a good habit to embed in family life, and children will begin to look forward not just to the stories but also to that time spent in your arms listening to your voice. As parents, we can really enhance the reading experience for our children. The UK Literacy Association emphasises the role that parents can play by engaging with children in what they’re reading. For younger children this could be asking about their favourite character, keeping a list of new or unfamiliar words, or asking about why they think characters did a particular thing. For older children, involving them in the idea of critical review could be incredibly engaging. Perhaps read through one or two reviews and ask which ones they agree with. With supervision, create an account on Goodreads to keep track of and share what they’ve read and how they rated it.
A good reading diet is a mix of the challenging, the familiar and the achievable. Don’t expect a reluctant reader to work through a 400-page novel, however exciting it looks. Pick a book you can finish. Re-reading an old favourite is a great way to keep the habit going, but children should try not to spend too much time on books that are obviously below their reading ability.
And finally, if your school is lucky enough to have a library, and a librarian, you have an immediate and accessible source of books and recommendations that are perfectly tailored to what young people enjoy.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Patrick Cragg has now officially joined our Tooled Up team and we welcome him onboard. Keen users of Tooled Up will have noticed Patrick has already produced webinars for staff and parents within our platform and produced fantastic resources on the theme of Macbeth to support revision around GCSEs. Check them out!
If your school or organisation is part of the Tooled Up community and you are interested in learning more about reading development and motivation, why not tune in to our interviewwith Professor Jessie Ricketts. Teachers in Tooled Up schools might also be interested in our webinars on working alongside parents to develop children’s literacy and effective reading interventions for young children. This article and video from Dr Kathy Weston has further information and tips on reading to your child and you can find advice on encouraging vocabulary and reading comprehension here.
We would love to hear from parents, teachers and our school librarians on the books they enjoy and recommend!
New content to the platform this week includes an activity for helping children prepare for school admissions interviews, and our programme of interesting and diverse webinars is in full swing. You can find details of upcoming events here.