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Reading for pleasure: A catalyst for connection

8 min read
KELLY ASHLEY, LECTURER IN READING FOR PLEASURE, THE OPEN UNIVERSITY, UK
PROFESSOR TERESA CREMIN, THE OPEN UNIVERSITY, UK 
JENNI JEALOUS, VICE PRINCIPAL, CROFT ACADEMY, UK
CURTIS JORDAN, YEAR 2 TEACHER AND ENGLISH LEAD, HORSENDALE PRIMARY SCHOOL, UK

 

Finding ways to engage students in reading may be one of the most effective ways to leverage social change.

(OECD, 2002. p. 3)

The practicality of achieving this goal, however, is the true challenge. Recent results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study indicate that, in England, children’s attitudes to reading continue to fall and are very low compared with to their skills (Mullis et al., 2023). While England ranked fourth for reading attainment, only 29 per cent of children reported loving reading, compared to the international median of 46 per cent, and 24 per cent reported not liking reading at all (the median was 18 per cent) (Lindorff et al., 2023). This is underscored by UK-wide data revealing the lowest levels of attitudes to reading among eight- to 18-year-olds since 2005 (Cole et al., 2022).

So, how do schools enrich their reading curricula to nurture the habit of reading and offer every child the academic, social and emotional benefits (Torppa et al., 2020; Sun et al., 2023) associated with regular recreational reading?

In this article, we share the professional development (PD) journeys of Croft Academy and Horsendale Primary School, from urban and rural contexts (with full and informed consent – BERA, 2018) and their evidence-informed approach to implementing and developing reading for pleasure cultures across 2022–23. As the Department for Education (DfE) Reading Framework states:

It is impossible to mandate that pupils read for pleasure, but teachers can inspire pupils and engage them in reading widely. This depends, however, on embedding a school culture that values and supports reading for pleasure.

(DfE, 2023, p. 91)

Described as a ‘collective responsibility’ (DfE, 2023, p. 91), building this culture represents an opportunity to involve and connect all staff, and can be enabled through the development of a community of practice. Essentially, this is a group of people who share a common concern or interest in something that they do, and learn from one another to enrich their individual and shared repertoire of practice (Wenger-Traynor and Wenger-Traynor, 2015). Such a community has a secure grounding in research, drawing on evidence-informed practice to inform next steps (Hargreaves and O’Connor, 2018).

Creating connected communities of practice

The creation of communities of practice around reading for pleasure in both Croft and Horsendale involved ongoing opportunities for sustained interaction and collaboration, which, supported by their involvement in the Open University’s (OU) Reading Schools Programme, enabled staff to define the problem and find solutions to children’s lack of interest in reading. English leaders utilised RfP as a catalyst for connection, sparking engagement in staff and students. Drawing on evidence around motivating and supporting volitional reading (Hempel- Jorgensen et al., 2018; McGeown, 2020), staff teams worked to build and share knowledge, reshaping their professional practice. They also tracked the impact of this changed provision on particular child readers, adjusting in response to their engagement. Over time, communities of practice developed, and members tentatively began to widen their understanding of the nature of reading as a solitary, individual act.

Exploring the problem

In order to establish a baseline from which to build a culture of reading, vice principal Jenni Jealous undertook OU RfP surveys with staff and children. These surveys, generated by the OU, were administered and analysed internally at Croft. Staff were at the start of their RfP journey, honestly and openly exploring the problem. The data revealed that 68 per cent of children surveyed held negative or disinterested attitudes to reading and that staff knowledge of children’s identities, preferences, and practices as readers was limited. Eighty-seven per cent of staff completed the survey, with analysis indicating that most were reliant on books from their childhood and had limited awareness of diverse, contemporary texts, in line with current research (Farrar, 2021). Sixty-two per cent of children surveyed could not name a favourite children’s author. Those that could named Roald Dahl, David Walliams or Michael Morpurgo, while others simply named their book band colour.

Capitalising on staff determination, Jenni established a change team: a nucleus of staff to drive RfP development across the year – three teaching assistants and two teachers from different phases. Having analysed the baseline data together, they moved to the ‘prepare’ stage of the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF, 2021) implementation process: design an action plan with aims, success criteria and strategies to track impact prior to implementing their plan, and later seek to sustain their work. Interlinked aims were agreed to develop staff knowledge of texts and of their young readers.

Change team members, each with different expertise and roles, engaged in a process of collective learning about RfP. They attended and led PD opportunities and engaged in extensive incidental as well as planned conversations about reading motivation and, in particular, children’s identities as readers. Across the school, six children from each class were identified as a lens through which to assess the impact of the ongoing development work. These disengaged readers served as a focal point in many of these learning conversations.

Committing to finding solutions together

Initially, these focus children were involved in ‘delving deeper’ discussions, enabling staff to explore not only why so many disliked reading but also what the school could do to address their disaffection. The children commonly voiced the view that they felt obliged to read in school, that books were ‘boring’ and that they were rarely read to at home or in school. Additionally, home reading was not always easy, due to language differences (30+ languages spoken by families across Croft’s school community), younger siblings taking parents’ time and a lack of book access at home.

Responding to these findings, staff took up the challenge of widening their own repertoires, sharing recommendations in staff meetings. This developed iteratively in some classrooms into children’s reading behaviours – for example, ‘Read two books and find a member of staff to discuss them with.’ Jenni offered high levels of autonomy and support, enabling RfP practices to develop organically as the change team shared their understanding and emerging practices. Ongoing review and reflection (Cordingley et al., 2015) was integral to this work and was supported by an RfP professional noticing cycle, systematically used over the year to document the impact of new opportunities on focus children. This encompassed:

  • Notice: What reading behaviours were observed? What identity positions adopted?
  • Document: Make a note of with whom, where and when.
  • Reflect: What might this observation reveal about the child as a reader, e.g. interests, identity, sense of self-efficacy, potential affinity networks?
  • Act: Adapt provision to further support reader motivation and engagement.

 

Through focusing on children’s levels of engagement, tracking moments of increased commitment and subtle dispositional shifts, Jenni observed that ‘staff realised that they were having an impact on our readers, and this created momentum, driving us forward’. Children, too, developed a new awareness of staff as readers and valued the adults’ interest, creating new relational connections. Summative data showed marked changes in most children’s attitudes to reading, as well as an enhanced confidence in talking about books. To sustain impact, Jenni is working to embed current practices further, to progress the school library and to widen children’s reading networks through connecting to and motivating others, such as parents and governors, to develop as reading role models alongside staff.

Personal and professional conversations

Horsendale had already begun to develop their RfP provision in 2021. Over that year, the English lead, Curtis Jordan, led an OU/UK Literacy Association teacher reading group, facilitating this local PD focused on volitional reading. Since some Horsendale staff had joined this group, new reading corners, a large library and a number of ‘pleasure-focused’ reading activities had been established. However, Curtis wanted to enhance the consistency of provision and embed an RfP ethos across the school, and therefore involved another teacher, a teaching assistant and a governor as part of his change team ‘network’ (Hargreaves and O’Connor, 2018, p. 22). The group quickly arranged a series of staff meetings to, in Curtis’ words, ‘create opportunities to build an understanding of the research behind the action and make time for professional conversation’.

This intentional planning of PD and discussion, combined with the baseline data analysis and identification of aims, served, in Curtis’s view, to act as an ‘invitation for everyone to clarify how and why we were moving forward with RfP as a whole staff team’. Aims focused on enriching staff knowledge of the children as readers and developing children’s capacity to engage in informal book-talk and recommendations, both of which are recognised as key to nurturing young readers who choose to read and who do so regularly (Cremin et al., 2014; Moses and Kelly, 2018).

With the support of senior leadership, protected time for informal book-talk was allocated weekly. The first step involved the change team modelling book conversations, adult to adult; responding to texts that had been shared, read or browsed. This naturally involved connecting to their own and others’ lives, forming intertextual connections as they co-constructed meanings together.

This modelling, also evidenced in studies by Hudson (2016) and Fisher and Frey (2018), was widened to assemblies and classrooms. Over time, modelling led to more frequent informal book-talk between adults and children, both during the dedicated RfP time in classrooms and more spontaneously during library visits and breaktimes.

Learning through professional noticing

Through observing young readers more closely as part of the professional noticing cycle, Horsendale staff saw that new opportunities for social interaction around reading nurtured more positive dispositions towards reading, helping young readers to identify books that they wanted to read. Additionally, it enabled these children to develop new relational connections with friends, peers and adults. Furthermore, as staff became better informed about children’s specific interests and motivations, their book recommendations became more tailored, and the children became aware of teachers and teaching assistants as readers and of their peers’ reading tastes and interests. This knowledge of other readers’ identities, passions and preferences emerged as another mechanism of connection, supporting the development of relationships linked to shared interests, texts and authors. The school’s end-of-year data also showed significant shifts in the children’s attitudes to reading.

Conclusion

Across the year, staff in both schools came to recognise that developing an RfP culture can positively impact the motivation of less-engaged readers, helping to build connected reading communities. While the schools’ journeys differed, the process of collective learning in each was typified by passionate commitment to this agenda, extensive interaction and a growing awareness and understanding of reading as a social and relational experience. In order to develop a rich reading ethos in line with the Reading Framework (DfE, 2023), these English leaders recommend that strong professional networks are formed as a nucleus of support for implementation, with staff committed to getting to know children as readers within a collective reading community. Through this process, reading for pleasure serves as a true catalyst for connection.

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