What do we mean when we talk about reading for pleasure?
As a children’s book editor, I had observed that the importance of encouraging children to ‘read for pleasure’ is often discussed, but with little debate around precisely what this expression means. The NC (England) requires pupils in Key Stages 1-4 to ‘read for pleasure’, and I wanted to investigate how teachers interpret this directive; what they think reading for pleasure (RfP) means and what it looks like in a school context.
As successive studies have shown that RfP declines in teenage years, I chose to focus my research on Key Stages 3 and 4. The National Curriculum states that reading for pleasure should not be confined to the English department, so I decided to interview both English teachers and teachers of other subjects. Through data collected in in-depth interviews with teachers across two London state schools, I identified a disconnect between theory and practice: I found that the teachers tended to describe RfP as the freedom to choose when and what to read, whilst the practices they used to support RfP in school frequently involved strictly prescribed reading times and direction over the ‘choice’ of reading material.
Why are theory and practice in conflict?
Most of the teachers I interviewed suggested that pupils, left to their own devices, would generally fail to select ‘quality’ reading material, opting for texts which are ‘too easy’. My research suggests that such views are contributing to prescriptive practices, such as schemes where pupils are obliged to choose from a narrow range of books which correspond with their reading level even at secondary school.
I found that the current emphasis on measurable outcomes in education is leading to a climate in which RfP is not valued intrinsically but for its instrumental benefits, in the form of improved results in standardised tests.
Paradoxically, the emphasis on examination results appears to be marginalising RfP in schools, despite a belief amongst teachers that increased enjoyment of reading correlates positively with attainment. This is because teachers feel that there is little time for anything which is not on the exam syllabus. Examination pressure makes it very difficult for teachers to create the space for the kind of practices that would correspond with their own definitions of RfP.
The ‘invasion’ of technology
My research also suggests that teachers’ perceptions of the relationship between reading and technology may contribute towards prescriptive reading practices in schools. Teachers expressed a concern that, given the choice, pupils would occupy their time with digital pursuits rather than reading a book. (There was a tendency amongst the teachers I interviewed not to differentiate between ebooks and other types of digital technology, such as social media and text messages.) Whilst some teachers talked about the potential for digital technology to provide a catalyst for RfP, many saw its relationship with RfP as a ‘battle’, and expressed a view that use of digital technology impacts negatively upon attainment, particularly in relation to SPAG.
Links with TaRs Research
• Teachers’ knowledge of texts
The OU/UKLA TaRs research project found that teachers need a wide and up-to-date knowledge of children’s literature and other texts in order to make one to one reader recommendations. However, my research suggests that lack of literary knowledge was not the perceived issue amongst the secondary teachers I spoke to, but the pupils’ lack of time to read. One teacher told me that her pupils were often intrigued by the extracts she gave them and would ask to borrow the book, but a month later would not have read it because they did not have time.
• independent reading time
Independent reading time within a highly social reading environment was identified by the TaRs project as a key practice within a robust RfP pedagogy. Whilst I identified examples of social reading environments such as ‘reading cafes’ and whole-school Drop Everything and Read (DEAR)events, I found that these either only attracted a small minority of students, or, for whole-school events, were rare practices and exceptions to the norm.
• Children’s rights as readers
The TaRs project also suggests that a robust RfP pedagogy in primary education enables teachers to let children take control of their own reading and exercise their rights as readers. In the secondary schools in which I conducted my research, these rights did not appear to be in place: pupils’ reading choices were criticised for being too easy and I encountered examples of pupils being ordered to change their books as a consequence. Whilst intended to encourage pupils to challenge themselves, there is a risk that criticising their preferred reading choices may turn young people off RfP.
In summary, my research suggests that the conflict between the teachers’ theorisation of RfP and their classroom practice can be seen as a consequence of the results-driven culture in which both they and their pupils are operating. This culture is leading to an environment in which RfP is generally only given a space in school where it produces measurable outcomes in the form of raising pupils’ reading levels. These pressures are marginalising the very reading practices which facilitate RfP, replacing them with practices which, in one teacher’s words, may be ‘killing’ pleasure.
Emma Drage is a children’s book editor and recently completed a Master’s dissertation on the role of ‘RfP’ in secondary education, as part of an MSc in Education, Power and Social Change at Birkbeck College, University of London.
 for Education. 2013. The National Curriculum in England: Key Stages 1 and 2 and Framework Document.
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