Reading for Pleasure?

This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to encourage more of the young people I teach to read for pleasure. This is every English teacher’s dream and it often seems like an unattainable goal. If anyone had a solution to the reading challenge then it would be packaged, sold and millions would be made. Billions even.
Disclaimer – If you’re hoping that this blog will be my big reveal of the holy grail then please stop reading now as you’ll be disappointed. I haven’t found the answer but I am working on it…

I’ve had to reflect on the way we present reading in school. For instance, as a younger teacher I used to get pupils to do reading when they were in my detentions. It seemed like a purposeful way for them to spend their time once they’d apologised for the pen throwing or general disruption they had caused in my lesson. But what I was really doing was far more damaging. This is a detention, this is a punishment, reading is punishment. That’s what I was telling them. I soon stopped this foolish practice and would urge any other teachers who have made this mistake to do the same.

As time went on a I became confident that my department was doing everything right in terms of encouraging reading for pleasure. Reading lessons in KS3 once a week, where there is not a pen in sight, are common practice now. Teachers and students read together and pause to discuss and reflect on the story at regular intervals. I also introduced the idea of reading at the beginning of every lesson; this was initially a response to a timetabling disaster which left us running from room to room every period, trying to settle a class and set up the lesson. I decided that having every pupil silently read for the first 10 minutes of every lesson would not only be a calm and engaging way to begin, but had the practical benefit of allowing the harassed teacher to catch their breath and get the resources ready. Finally, we had a massive clear out of all our old and tatty class reading books; you know, the ones you’ve had since 1985 with questionable graffiti on every other page. We donated them to the art department who made some beautiful book art and we used them for black out poetry. The literacy budget was spent on hundreds of shiny new reading books, much to the delight of everyone.

So far so good, right?

Wrong. Whilst our department and school is doing all we can to promote reading (and I must give a shout out here to our incredible library team) I’m still not satisfied that we are making a big enough difference. Kids still pretend to read in our reading lessons and get caught daydreaming or hiding a phone behind the book. A few still regularly forget to bring their own book to the start of every lesson despite a high profile reward system to encourage this. And the shiny new reading books? Some still haven’t been touched. These pupils are in the minority so you may ask ‘what’s the problem?’ The problem for me is that I don’t want any child to leave my school having never experienced the pleasure of a good book, having never experienced what it’s like to feel sad when reaching the end of a great novel, having never experienced the desire that a character was real so they could be your actual real life friend!

My expectations of all the children that pass through our doors is very high, as it should be, but I’m starting to worry that the reading issue is something we cannot tackle alone.

I recently read Daniel Willingham’s Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. I naïvely thought that this would be the aforementioned holy grail; Willingham’s going to tell me how to get the buggers to read! And he did… Sort of. It soon became apparent that maybe our children reach us too late for us to fix the reading problem. No culture of reading at home? Forget it. Pupils raised in a household with few or no books (as many of ours are) are very unlikely to ever get to grips with reading at all, never mind reading for pleasure. As a secondary English teacher, I’m in awe of my primary colleagues who know how to teach children to read from scratch, but even they will face an uphill struggle to engage reluctant readers if this is not pushed at home.

It seems like parental engagement and community outreach might be the key to this problem; I am proud to say that the community my school and I serve is one of the most culturally diverse in the country and so pupils and families who speak English as an additional or second language make up the majority of our catchment. As a result, the number of English language novels in the home is often very limited and the taboo many teenagers experience about going to the library means some of our kids never have access to varied reading material outside of school.

I don’t know how to fix this. I have no answers, and I’m sorry if you’ve got to this point in my blog expecting some. I do intend to go hunting for them though, and speaking to our library and literacy coordinator about parental outreach is going to be my next step.

I would be interested to hear what other schools do to engage parents in reading or if you have had any success with engaging reluctant readers. Any comments below will be appreciated.

Thank you for reading.
Hopefully it’s been a pleasure.

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