Reading for Pleasure

Posted: 27th June 2024

students with their teacher

Our role as a school is to open minds to more than just subjects; we’re here to educate our students in the widest possible sense. To that end we have prioritised reading for pleasure this year. Dr Hayward, Channing Senior School Reading Coordinator, reminded us recently of the proven importance of reading and what we can do to encourage it. I was really struck by the three quotes she put up on her opening slide to demonstrate the power of reading:

‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.’
James Baldwin

‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’
Dr. Seuss

‘It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.’
Unitarian minister Charles Francis Potter

As Dr Hayward explained, reading does many things: it gives us access to the store of human knowledge; it connects us to people and experiences across the world and across the ages; and because of this, reading shapes who we are and moulds us into people who are capable of thinking critically, deeply and sensitively about the world.

As you would expect, there is a positive correlation between reading for pleasure and literacy skills (e.g. improved vocabulary, greater reading proficiency etc.). But what is perhaps more surprising is the research that shows a connection between reading for enjoyment and an enhanced ability to learn across the curriculum. Sullivan and Brown, for example, investigated the extent to which inequalities in vocabulary and mathematics are linked to reading. They found that there is a ‘substantial link’ between reading for pleasure and ‘progress in mathematics’. Research carried out by GL Assessment also reveals a significant connection between reading ability and success in all GCSE subjects. This is precisely why Alex Quigley, in his book Closing The Reading Gap, describes reading as ‘the master skill of school’ because it unlocks the academic curriculum for students.

We know that even for our intelligent girls in this academically selective school, the lack of wider reading, beyond those books required for school work, has an impact on their academic progress. It hampers their ability to decode exam questions and the clarity of their written expression, as well as limiting their vocabulary and their ability to analyse in depth. Perhaps most worrying is the echo chamber they create for themselves by not being exposed to a range of ideas, perspectives and experiences beyond those pushed to them by the algorithm of their social media feeds.

We also know, though, that there are lots of barriers to reading for pleasure. The biggest one that students have reported to us is time: either that they think reading is a waste of time when they should be revising for an upcoming test or catching up with homework, or they are distracted by their phones. Certainly their perception of reading as a solitary activity means that they feel that reading is an isolating activity that takes them away from connecting with their friends, whether in person or online. At school we will be redoubling our efforts to reinforce the research evidence that reading widely, for pleasure, is linked to academic success.

We need students to understand that reading time, whether in form time in school or at home in the evening before bed, is time well spent. We also know that time away from screens in the immediate period before lights out enhances the quality of sleep, which is an added incentive for reading before bed.

We are also going to spend time reading aloud together. You probably haven’t done this with your children since they were very young – I certainly used to love story time at bedtime, and for a long time could do the whole of The Gruffalo by heart. However, hearing stories read aloud isn’t just for young children. We all like to listen to stories; it’s the reason we go to the cinema or to the theatre, or, indeed, meet our friends for a gossip.

Finally we really want to motivate reading by pointing out that we are all readers too. Among our adult peers we love to talk about what we are reading. We’ll be having more conversations with students about our reading, and theirs, so that they begin to view reading as something that enhances and enriches social interaction rather than something that diminishes it. Asking for, and sharing, recommendations is a really simple start. In case you’re interested, I’m currently reading Shakespeare: the Man who Pays the Rent by Dame Judi Dench. I must admit I probably wouldn’t have picked it up myself (I was given it by my mother in law for Christmas) but I am happy to report that it’s a lovely read. Part memoir of every Shakespeare part she has ever played, part Shakespearian analysis (which has taught me all sorts of things I didn’t know about his plays) and, perhaps unexpectedly, part critique of the craft of acting, it’s a perfect read for those ten minutes each night to end the day before I turn the light out. Enjoy!

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