One of the delights of directing Just Imagine is that I have the privilege of working with readers of all ages and from very varied backgrounds. Reading with them, sharing books, stories and personal anecdotes has been a source of constant enlightenment. Sometimes the lessons have been profound. Occasionally an epiphany throws everything into sharp relief and a vague intuition starts to take on a clearer form.
On one such occasion I was working with a group of young teenage readers. As I surveyed the room, I noticed that most students were absorbed in books of their own choice, some were pretending to read, hoping I would not be able to tell the difference if they stared hard enough at the pages in front of them. I moved around the class, stopping to talk to individual students about their book choices. One boy with watery eyes (a speck of dust he would say) turned to me and simply said, ‘I can’t read this book; it’s too sad’. Thinking about the lessons I had learned from Daniel Pennac and my own belief that there is little point in trying to make someone read a book that they don’t want to, I just replied, ‘well if you don’t want to read it, you can choose something else.’ He looked directly at me. 'I have to. I HAVE to.’ He said. I had totally missed the point. The emotional authenticity, the sadness was the very thing that made the book worth reading, not a reason for it to be abandoned, or returned to the shelf for a more robust reader to pickup later. The book was ‘Private Peaceful’.
Teachers and students who have attended one of our ‘Reading for Pleasure, Raising Attainment courses will have heard me recount that anecdote because the intensity of that boy’s response explains the mild irritation that I feel when the phrase ‘reading for pleasure’ is used as though it is synonymous with ‘fun’ and the attendant conclusion that the wackier and more scatological the book, the greater pleasure readers will derive from it (especially boys). Let me make it clear, I am not against humour; I do believe in the virtue of comedy. And I do not want children to be miserable ( though I freely admit to a personal preference for stories where everyone ends up dead). However, to equate reading for pleasure with the light –hearted is reductive and does little to help us understand why some children join the ‘reading club’, while others remain uninitiated.
A report published today by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy at the Institute of Education, University of London (Duncan 2013) makes the case for reading for pleasure as a subject worthy of serious attention. As the report states, children who read for pleasure attain more highly, not only in reading but more generally in all subjects, including mathematics.
In a clear exposition the report looks at what reading for pleasure really is, and what it is not. Intention and purpose are key: reading for its own sake rather than by direction or for study. The reasons that lead to this self determination are numerous. They include entertainment and escape, mental stimulation, ethical contemplation and companionship.(Duncan)
The implication for the classroom is that reading for pleasure is not an added extra or 'cherry on the cake'. On the contrary it is integral to teaching. Effective pedagogy develops children’s comprehension at the same time as promoting enjoyment. Increased vocabulary, which is core to increasing comprehension, is a result of wider reading. To focus on skills without also thinking about the purposes for reading and what the act of reading does for the reader, is like learning to cook but never being allowed to taste the food. What is needed is holistic and intellectually rigorous approaches which orchestrate all the components of reading rather than unhelpfully compartmentalising grammar. vocabulary, comprehension etc. Classroom approaches such as literature circles, and well-managed guided reading provide the opportunity to develop reading skills within a community of readers.
Alberto Manguel 'A History of Reading' (2006) explains why the endeavour is worth it: books may not change our suffering, books may not protect us from evil, books may not tell us what is good or what is beautiful, and they will certainly not shield us from the common fate of the grave. But books grant us myriad possibilities, the possibility of illumination (p. 232).
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