In this, my final article on the red thread of reading for pleasure, I want to inspire a new wave of relentless determination to entice all teachers to read children’s books and share their delight in them. We know that teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature and other texts is not an optional extra, it is foundational. But I fear that as readers of Book for Keeps, as members of library and publishing circles, of book clubs and the Twitter kids’ books community, we are living in an echo chamber. We delight in sharing and receiving book recommendations, in meeting authors, in reading and being part of a book loving collective. But what about all those teachers who are far less engaged?
Only last week a practitioner wrote in a zoom chat line– ‘Are you seriously asking me to read kids’ books- I just don’t have the time’. Whilst many teachers offered encouragement, I doubt their words, or my keynote, made any difference. Years ago, our research revealed that teachers’ repertoires desperately needed expansion (Cremin et al, 2009). Primary practitioners’ knowledge of children’s texts was scant (24% couldn’t name a picture fiction creator and 22% a poet!) They relied upon books from childhood and a narrow canon of ‘celebrity authors’ – in particular Dahl dependency was rife. Secondary teachers’ knowledge of authors was also limited, dominated by Dahl, Morpurgo, Rowling and Donaldson (Clark and Teravainen, 2015).
Worryingly, a recent lockdown survey revealed the same trend, with almost the same list of popular writers receiving by far the highest number of mentions (CLPE, 2021). Dahl was the most frequently cited author that these teachers’ reported reading aloud during this time. In countless school improvement projects too, I continue to find practitioners’ knowledge of children’s texts remains a cause for concern.
However, it isn’t easy for classroom teachers to find the time to expand their reading repertoires, especially as reading in schools is often conceived as a matter of proficiency, a skill to be taught and tested. Moreover, despite the inclusion of reading for pleasure in the National Curriculum (DfE, 2014), there is no requirement for teachers to develop this essential aspect of their subject knowledge, either in teacher training or through professional development.
Yet unless practitioners have a wide and deep knowledge of children’s literature and other texts, and a working knowledge of the children as readers, they are not well positioned to instil a love of reading and enable the will to influence the skill. In our school improvement work we regularly find that children’s favourite authors mirror the restricted range known to staff. Limited professional repertoires constrain children’s experience of diverse texts, of texts that reflect their young lives, that explore current issues and are written by #ownvoice and new writers. Frequently, the baseline audits of staff knowledge reveal significant gaps; in September 2020 for instance, one head teacher found only 3 of the 41 books named by the staff were published after 2004! In another, as the English leader noted: ‘Staff themselves were shocked by their own answers [to the baseline audit] and acknowledged that their choices reflected books from their own childhood, from their own children’s childhood or from texts taught in school. Not many teachers had read a children’s book (outside of the classroom) for a long time.’
Children need role models who voice their passion and pleasure in reading. Knowledge of children’s literature and of individual children as readers is the cornerstone on which interactive and reciprocal communities of readers are built. So as a profession we surely need to pay increased attention to those staff members, teachers and teaching assistants who are less than keen readers. They may have less time, lockdown may have disturbed their reading practices, and they may have forgotten, or never yet experienced, the affective, social and relational satisfactions of being a reader.
Ways forward to tempt and engage staff
We cannot make teachers (or children) find reading satisfying or demand they enjoy themselves, but we can entice, tempt, and invite them into the imaginative, informative and engaging world of reading, and share our own pleasures and experiences as readers. Multiple possibilities beckon.
Making it personal and affective
In order to draw staff into the reading community, it is vital to get to know more about their interests and lives beyond school. Armed with knowledge about their hobbies, fascinations, a forthcoming wedding and so forth you can tailor your text recommendations to tempt your colleagues, perhaps gifting these wrapped up as a half-term treat. Additionally, inviting staff to create their reading histories (texts and contexts) or bring in books from childhood will trigger memories and informal conversations about their reading lives. Affective engagement underpins reading for pleasure, so let’s tap into this and take time in staff meetings to revisit memories of bedtime stories or of books that moved us. Displaying these can also help.
Reading aloud potent picture fiction will further surface personal resonances and connections. Let the power of the narrative and the images do the work, just offer space for small group chat, and have a stash of other books by the same author/illustrator, or on the same theme, ready to loan your colleagues.
Making it volitional
Volition and agency are key to enticing readers of whatever age. Many staff will be reading aloud a class book from the school’s reading spine, but if they didn’t choose it, this is really required reading, not choice-led volitional reading. You’ll want to nurture their intrinsic motivation to read, as this is more closely associated with recreational reading than extrinsic motivation, so why not offer a choice of texts from last year’s award winners or a budget for books that each teacher can spend with their class. In one school last year, reading 20 children’s books was set as a performance management target for all staff. Surprisingly, this didn’t backfire on the senior leadership team, perhaps because choice was central, time was set aside to read and share in staff meetings and new stock was ordered based on teachers’ recommendations. Offering challenges can also help, such as reading to your ankle or knee in books, or joining the Teachers’ Reading Challenge.
Making it social
Reading is both solitary and social and always dependent on text and context. So, plan opportunities for staff to share their reading lives and practices with each other and the children. By reading aloud at the start of every briefing meeting or in regular reading assemblies, you’ll be building a set of staff books in common, read for the sole purpose of shared enjoyment. These represent a rich resource for conversation, emotional and social connections and for spinning webs of reader relationships. Creating a staff bookshelf with some of the very best children’s literature, non-fiction, magazines and comics can also trigger book chat, especially if staff leave post-it-note reviews for each other inside.
Many staff teams explore what counts as reading in their lives and share these prior to exploring the same question with children. Reading rivers, 24 hour reads and reading treasure hunts can all help to highlight diversity and the social nature of everyday reading, as well as our personal purposes and preferences as readers.
Making the benefits explicit
Some staff may be unaware of the significant academic benefits that accrue to childhood readers. Focusing on this in a staff meeting or creating simple posters with research evidence can help. These could show for example, that recreational reading contributes to increased comprehension and attainment in literacy (Tavsancil, et al., 2019), higher mathematics scores (Sullivan and Brown, 2015), enriched narrative writing (Senechal, 2019) and a wider vocabulary (McQuillan et al, 2019). Highlighting the social and emotional benefits that support children’s wellbeing is also important; reading (and being read to) can be calming, offering a safe space for relaxation and escapism, as well as a sense of belonging that is so important (and not only in the context of the pandemic).
Understanding that reading is affective, volitional, and social is a challenge in an accountability culture which frames reading in education as an individual act of proficiency. But with determination it is possible to rekindle staff engagement and enhance each member’s personal and professional awareness of what it means to be a reader. It’s not only a professional, moral, and social responsibility to keep up to date with children’s texts, it’s also a deep source of satisfaction, and by tempting more staff to read and share the red thread of reading for pleasure, you’ll be nurturing the desire and delight of younger readers too.
Professor Teresa Cremin is a Professor of Education (Literacy) at The Open University in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies.
Clark, C. and Teravainen, A. (2015). Teachers and Literacy: Their perceptions, understanding, confidence and awareness. London: National Literacy Trust.
CLPE (2021) Reading For pleasure in 2020: Learning about literacy teaching in the pandemic, London, CLPE.
Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Collins, F., Powell, S. and Safford, K. (2009) Teachers as readers: building communities of readers Literacy 43 (1):11-19.
Cremin, T. Mottram, M. Powell, S, Collins R and Safford K. (2014) Building Communities of Engaged Readers: Reading for pleasure London and NY: Routledge
Kucirkova, N. and Cremin, T. (2020) Children reading for pleasure in the digital age: Mapping Readers’ Engagement, London: Sage
McQuillan, J. (2019) ‘The Inefficiency of Vocabulary Instruction’ International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education 11.4 309-318
Sénéchal, M., Hill, S. & Malette, M. (2018) Individual differences in grade 4 children’s written compositions: The role of online planning and revising, oral storytelling, and reading for pleasure Cognitive Development 45: 92–104.
Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. (2015) Reading for pleasure and progress in vocabulary and mathematics British Educational Research Journal, 41 (6) :971-991.
Tavsancil, E., Yildirim, O. & Bilican Demir, S. (2019) Direct and Indirect Effects of Learning Strategies and Reading Enjoyment on PISA 2009 Reading Performance Eurasian Journal of Educational Research 82 169-189