Research seems to conclude emphatically that ‘reading for pleasure’ has huge literacy-related, social and cultural benefits. It apparently increases reading and writing attainment (OECD, 2000 and Krashen, 1993; Anderson et al, 1988; but also see Taylor et al., 1990); improves text comprehension and grammar (Cipielewski and Stanovich, 1992; Cox and Guthrie, 2001); improves vocabulary (Angelos and McGriff, 2002); improves general knowledge (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1998); improves community participation (Bus, van Ijzendoorm and Pellegrini, 1995) and even gives greater insight into human nature and decision making (Bruner, 1996). It is, furthermore, apparently the greatest indicator of academic achievement (Labby and Sullivan, 2016). The encouraging of ‘reading for pleasure’ even finds its way into the primary national curriculum and is embedded in the NAHT English descriptors (and if you want to know how useless they are, read Daisy Christodoulou (2017))
But should reading be pleasurable? I am not so sure. Because reading is not the point. Reading must have a purpose and the universal purpose is to ascertain what an author has to say on a given subject. The reading element is merely a process that enables the reader to translate the words of the writer into meaning. Once we have learned to decipher the alphabetic code, mastered it to automaticity and then become fluent readers the process has no pleasure or pain; it is merely embedded in long term memory, easily accessed and no longer places any cognitive load on working memory. It is the understanding of the meaning that generates utility not the process of reading.
Now, I hear you say, you’re just being pedantic: reading for pleasure means enjoying the ideas, narrative and information translated from the words read, not the process. I agree, but do we really mean that when we talk about children ‘reading for pleasure’? I don’t think so. I think we mean children reading books that THEY enjoy; reading that Elder and Paul describe as requiring ‘no particular skill level’ (2006, p57): reading The Famous Five or Tracey Beaker – great fun but no intellect required. Now how does reading something that is so intellectually unchallenging lead to all of those benefits listed above?
It is why adults read Harry Potter books – because it is easy – it makes no intellectual demands on them (and before you start tweeting, I think HP does make intellectual demands on children).
Thinking is hard work and pleasure from it is not instant but results from the solving of problems (Willingham, 2006). Reading complex texts is an ‘exercise of the mind in thinking and feeling’ (Mann, 1838), involves hard intellectual work and results in the understanding and appreciation of new world views and the internalising and ownership of organised systems of meaning (Elder and Paul, 2006). Sound like fun? Rewarding when you understand, but not fun? It certainly doesn’t sound like a Tracey Beaker story or Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
So, let’s reassess ‘reading for pleasure’ in terms of educating our children to read and perhaps give it the more academic moniker of ‘reading for intellect’.
It has important ramifications:
Teach phonic decoding, automaticity and reading fluency to mastery – reading will never be associated with pleasure when a child can’t decipher the alphabetic code.
Teach reading using complex texts that demand more than one superficial read and have sufficient depth to require intellectual investment – see Doug Lemov’s (2016) excellent ‘Reading Reconsidered’.
Demand that children are exposed to classic literature – it is classic for a reason – it will need scaffolding, or it will be read superficially but it needs to be read.
Children need to be taught to be reflective readers – how they read depends on what they read – they need to learn this which means they need to be taught it.
And no, I am not saying children can’t read Enid Blyton, but they do need to be aware (at some time in their lives) that it is not good writing.