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There's nothing like a good book - the problem with 'Reading for Pleasure'.

‘Reading for Pleasure’ has become a ubiquitous expression in the world of education and the promotion of it in schools an expectation; indeed, the recently published Reading Framework (DFE, 2023) devotes a ten page section on ‘Developing a reading for pleasure culture’ with advice on how schools can promote it. Although the document acknowledges that it is ‘impossible to mandate that pupils read for pleasure’, it adds, rather threateningly, that it is a ‘collective responsibility’ and that ‘schools need a strategic approach’. A rather ambiguous but nonetheless menacing message to schools is implicit: you cannot compel children to enjoy reading, but we can hold you accountable if they don’t. One can almost feel an OFSTED training session PowerPoint, along with assessment tick-box and Evaluation Form being constructed. But why the obsession with reading for pleasure? Isn’t it enough that schools teach children how to read fluently and let them discover the gratification of gleaning information and narrative fulfilment from texts? Swimming coaches are accountable for ensuring children can swim sufficiently well to prevent drowning, they are, after all, not accountable for ensuring children develop a pleasure from swimming; the fun derived from being able to swim is assumed to be inherent.

Nevertheless, it would seem that the fixation with the promotion of developing reading for pleasure is well placed and embedded in sound and considerable research enquiry. The ‘Research Evidence on Reading for Pleasure’ (DfE, 2012) emphasises the growing body of research evidence that illustrates the importance of reading for pleasure for both educational purposes and personal development. It cites Clark (2011) and Clark and Douglas (2011) who indicated a positive relationship between reading frequency, reading enjoyment and attainment. But reading frequency is not reading for pleasure, and there should be no surprise that reading more leads to higher attainment; and is enjoyment the same as pleasure? Aristotle would not agree. Joy was not the same as eudaimonia or flourishing. The same issue is raised in the cited Twist et al. (2007) study that found a positive link between positive attitudes towards reading and scoring well on assessments, but again, is a having a positive attitude the same as pleasure? The problem with definitions occurs with the cited Anderson et al. (1988) study which reported that independent reading being the best predictor of reading achievement. This would suggest that motivated readers perform more highly in reading assessments – hardly a surprise, and being well-motivated does not necessarily imply pleasure; it may imply an understanding and acceptance of delayed gratification or extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation.

However, the OECD (2002) research that found that reading enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status seems to trump all the above sophistic considerations. It implies that if children can be induced to enjoy reading, then all of the educational disadvantages of any social injustices resultant from being dealt a poor hand in life can be mitigated.

A correlation/causation warning light may just have come up on your evidence dashboard.

It is perhaps enlightening to look again at the Hughes and Stainthorpe (1999) study into children who read at an early age. This was a longitudinal study over three years and perhaps most pertinently found that early readers came from varied socio-economic backgrounds and were in no way exclusively economically privileged. What seemed to make the greatest difference was the home environment and parental attitudes towards reading. Print was a strong feature in homes, children were read to from an early age, regularly and from a variety of texts. Children had an extensive acquaintance with story form – introduction, development, and resolution. Parents held positive attitudes towards reading and modelled these attitudes both consciously and subconsciously. Writing was evident in all homes with evidence of extensive list-writing. Crucially, these children had developed excellent alphabetic knowledge and high levels of phonological sensitivity – often through repetition of verse. What is perhaps most revealing is that these early readers were never forced to read by their parents, but their developing skills and interest in literacy activities ensured that they engaged in more of them – a Matthew’s effect was clearly evident. Once in formal education they made rapid progress across all areas of the curriculum but especially in reading. This study supported Clark’s (1976) research (that built on Durkin’s 1966 study) that highlighted that a home environment that was rich in auditory language stimulation was far more important to early reading than social class or parental occupation - or even parental education. It was the warmth of the language interaction between parents and children that appeared to make the difference. The children again were not pushed by ambitious parents but appeared self-motivated by a curiosity regarding language and print. Again, these early readers exhibited high levels of auditory phonological discrimination and crucially were noted to focus on print rather than the illustrations in books. Interestingly, these children were also exposed to repeated readings of stories and significant rhyming verse. So, it appears high levels of reading motivation may be promoted by a language rich environment and, critically for schools, the fast development of reading skills (particularly phonological discrimination) enabling swift access to narrative.

But is possessing a high level of motivation to read the same as reading for pleasure? This lies at the heart of the problem of promoting ‘reading for pleasure’. What actually is it?

It may seem obvious. After all, we all know what reading for pleasure is, don’t we? It’s Nell’s (1988) definition of being being a form of play that allows the reader to, ‘experience other worlds and roles in our imagination.’ It’s Jane Austen’s, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book.” It’s Rufus Choate’s, “Happy is he who has laid up in his youth, and held fast to fortune, a genuine passionate love of reading.” It’s that delicious anticipation and the actuality of getting lost in a good book. Isn’t it? Well, there’s the rub. Jane Austen may have tired a little more quickly if she were reading a technical manual on the statistical analysis of non-parametric quantitative data or a trashy novel rather than a ‘good book’.

Mackey (2020) suggests what is meant by a ‘good book’ generally means fiction, and almost always literature and commonly a bound, paper book rather than any other format and published by a company dominated by white, middleclass employees. This distortion towards literature is why, she argues, the National Endowment for Arts research has suggested such pessimistic reading rates in the USA in an age where print, and particularly digitalised print, is ubiquitous and voraciously consumed.

And literature has a huge advantage in the pleasure stakes – it can affect a deep psychological charm on the reader. Plato was acutely suspicious of this charm and felt that reading should be restricted to learning rather than imagination which took it a further step from universal truth. Aristotle, however, felt that this cleansing charm, or catharsis, could be psychologically beneficial if done well and by avoiding slavish adherence to the particulars of life had the power to reveal rather than obfuscate universal truth. This therapeutic effect of literature (and particularly tragedy) does have some basis in science with a particular application to the relief of PTSD (Shapiro, 2001). As literature has developed innovative, successful narrative devices over the centuries, so, Angus Fletcher (2021) argues, the success of each device is linked to a specific psychological benefit. Thus, he maintains, exposure to narrative can really promote the release of endorphins – that instant pleasure hit delivered by the body’s drug pusher; the equivalent of a small, narcotic-induced high. But is that really pleasure? Epicurus would classify this as this as a dynamic pleasure – comparable to eating a custard cream, rather than the static pleasure derived from a healthy lifestyle. And that narrative high is not exclusive to reading; it is available in the theatre, the cinema, on television, on video games, through storytelling and narrative formatted social media.

This skew towards literature as a proxy for reading and by implication reading for pleasure, has, Mackey (2020) posits, led towards biases in terms of gender, class and culture. Sullivan (2009) found that boys often see non-fiction not as a vehicle for finding specific information but as a way to better understand the world. In other words, they read non-fiction in the way that we expect children to read fiction. This was confirmed by Smith and Wilhelm (2006, 2013) who also found that numbers of men preferring non-fiction was double that of women. Furthermore, the publishing industry in English speaking countries is very white both in terms of personnel and product (Mackey, 2020). In 2016 the print book of the playscript “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” sold 2 million copies in the first two days. In the same year Pokémon Go app was released. It had over 100 million downloads in the first few weeks. Both formats require significant reading, but the taxonomic precision required to access the substantial text in guidebook and rules for Pokémon contrasts with the narrative expansiveness of Rowling’s creation. The readers of both derive considerable pleasure from the experience, but when researchers analyse reading for pleasure only the Rowling text counts (and who remembers the banning of Pokémon cards from primary schools 20 years ago despite the considerable text covering them? Imagine a similar banning of Harry Potter books). This bias towards the printed book has class and cultural implications according to Mackey (2020) who cites UNESCO’s (2014) findings that people read more, enjoy it more and read to children more on mobile devices. She highlights the politicisation of the library closures in the UK as driven by class rather than access to books for those who cannot afford them implying that digital libraries may be far more democratic. Kemp (2018) also highlights the importance of the mobile device for areas of the world with reduced access to education with internet access rates in Africa growing 20% year on year.

The Reading Framework (DFE, 2023) states that schools ‘should also acknowledge pupils’ developing interests and changing habits as they move from primary to secondary school’. This is a curious expression: acknowledging ‘interests and habits’ would seem appreciably different from the promotion of pleasure. To be able to promote reading for pleasure, we need to be able to define it. Sociologist Robert Stebbins (2012) more usefully describes the ‘committed reader’ and applies this commitment to three distinct areas: reading for utility, pleasure, and fulfilment. He does not distinguish in importance between the three areas but applies equal weight to them. Each area, though important, is fulfilling a different function. This is perhaps significantly more useful than merely focusing on pleasure. ‘Utilitarian reading’ he suggested, is carried out both in formal education and as part of self-education as part of a commitment to being a lifelong learner and as such has a practical and self-rewarding aspect and can be ‘interesting, powerfully motivating and rewarding’ (2012:56). ‘Reading for pleasure’, Stebbins (2012) maintains is active entertainment (it requires effort), launches imaginative play or as Nell (1988) defines this, as promoting daydreams. Stebbins (2012) adds that pleasurable reading may lead to sociable conversations and has the benefits of serendipitous discovery, edutainment, personal regeneration, interpersonal engagement, and well-being. Self-fulfilling reading is the acquiring of knowledge for its own sake: fulfilling the desire to be well-read; to be a Renaissance person. Often the expression of this knowledge is important both in terms of prestige and interesting others. The areas may include sport, the arts, science, philosophy…well, pretty much the whole curriculum, and it might be argued that this relates to the building of an expansive schematic constellation. In terms of schools, it may well be more practical to encourage children to become committed readers rather than promote reading for pleasure exclusively. As such, schools can articulate and promote the importance of reading in becoming an educated lifelong learner, the joys and structures of entertaining narratives and the value of reading across the curriculum to create schematic frameworks.

It is perhaps worth noting that reading for pleasure does have its critics. Einstein was very sceptical of its benefits, insisting that anyone who, ‘reads too much, uses his brain too little…’, as was Lord Chesterfield who likened reading for pleasure to cows grazing and thereby aligning with Johnson’s quip that reading for pleasure was reading without the fatigue of attention. Reading, as a sedentary activity, has even been associated with obesity (Poortinga et al., 2011) – although it should be noted that it is the inactive sitting rather than the reading that is in the dock. Elder and Paul (2006), who are cited in Doug Lemov’s ‘Reading Reconsidered’, described reading for pleasure as an activity that requires ‘no particular skill level’ (2006:57) and Emile Ciaron, the existentialist philosopher, wrote that, ‘Whereas any sentence one has to write requires a pretence of invention, it takes little enough attention to enter into a text, even a difficult one. To scribble a postcard comes closer to creative activity than to read The Phenomenology of Mind…’ (the extremeness of this statement will not be lost on anyone who has attempted Hegel’s impenetrable masterwork). Bernard Shaw was equally cynical, suggesting that reading was merely the substitution of ‘literature for life’ and both Waldo Emerson and Ortega Y Gasset were disparaging of the ‘Hobgoblin’ of received wisdom repackaged and articulated with little or no thought as imposed opinion by the execrable ‘mass man’. Perhaps Walter Benjamin went the furthest, implying that text required the reader to commit so much attention and time to the medium that its demands verged on tyranny.

So where does this leave schools in the promotion of ‘reading for pleasure’, and how should they answer the inevitable inspection question: ‘How are you promoting reading for pleasure in your school?

Perhaps the reply, “we teach and encourage reading so that our children can flourish’” may be a good answer with the addition, “and here’s how we do it…”

The research and evidence would seem to suggest that schools could articulate three elements to their strategy to encourage flourishing through reading:

1. Epicurus defined pleasure as the absence of pain.

o This is fundamental imperative for reading. If children find reading painful then they will never gain any utility from it. To avoid pain, children must master the skill of deciphering text: able to decode, read words instantly and develop fluency. This requires excellent phonics teaching, decodable texts, opportunities to develop orthographic processing and reading fluency. There will be no pleasure without this.

o A language-rich environment is imperative from the outset. Initially, this will be oral and aural. Stories need to be read and reread regularly. Text should be highlighted as well as illustrations. Rhyming verse and the learning of verse aids in developing phonological sensitivity. A diverse exposure to texts from the outset builds an inherent understanding of narrative structures.

o Home engagement and action early in the language development of a child is greatly beneficial to reading development. Access to numerous books is not essential. Access to some books is. Rereading of books is important. Forcing children to read is not motivating. Developing curiosity around text is.

2. Children are supported to think deeply about texts in order to develop metacognitive strategies that ensure reading enables them to flourish (as opposed to derive pleasure alone from reading).

o Deep reading (close reading) of texts with the support from teachers occurs across the curriculum with a focus on both narrative and expository texts. This may not promote pleasure in the short term but develops strategies to develop deep understanding of texts.

o Reference to the type of reading and its benefits are made explicit. Opportunities for reading for utility, entertainment and self-fulfilment occur across the curriculum.

o Teachers read regularly to children and do so in a manner that promotes enjoyment of more complex texts.

o Children are encouraged to attempt to access texts that may enable them to flourish. Teachers with excellent knowledge of texts will promote this.

3. Children are self-motivated to choose texts to read for utility, pleasure and self-fulfilment. This is the data that suggests children are becoming committed readers. It cannot be fabricated. It is the desire to read and the manifestation of that desire in action that is the data.

o Although books may be regularly sent home as part of school protocols, this is not choice.

o School and local libraries are imperative but offer the opportunity to choose but not the motivation.

o For many children, reading digitally may be the most effective option for accessing text.

o For schools, accessing digital data is often easier but the data may never reveal if the text has been read or enjoyed.

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