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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


What bookworms need to thrive

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 February 2021

IOE Events.

The benefits of reading for pleasure are many and varied, from the development of comprehension skills and vocabulary, to the enrichment of imagination and empathy.

For younger children, reading for pleasure builds the proficiency in literacy that accelerates their learning across the school curriculum, and this becomes a virtuous circle as they move on to more demanding texts.  But not all children – or adults – view reading as a favourite pastime. For our latest ‘What if…?’ debate, we brought together children’s author and poet Joe Coelho, literacy experts Charlotte Hacking and Professor Gemma Moss, and social scientist, Professor Alice Sullivan, to assess the barriers and enablers to cultivating committed readers (you can learn more about our panel here).  Along the way, we were delighted to be treated to a poetic tribute to reading, books and libraries.

Our discussion highlighted how the way in which literacy is taught and assessed in schools can be as much of an impediment as an enabler. An over-emphasis on reading as a proficiency and a sorting mechanism, manifested through a curriculum that insists on uniform delivery and pace and a narrow range of reading material risks diminishing children’s enjoyment and motivation. For some children, it pushes them into the category of ‘struggling reader’, which harms engagement and confidence still further, and can result in a retreat to picture books with little text. These children may need a different style of literacy teaching to get them back into the phonics classroom. Both they and their peers will benefit from a system that values a greater breadth of reading material beyond decodable texts. The key is finding the right balance between proficiency and progression and choice of text.

IOE research has demonstrated the particular benefits of reading fiction, especially more demanding fiction, compared to non-fiction books, newspapers and comics – benefits, incidentally, that continue to accrue across a lifetime of reading. However, by definition, reading for pleasure cannot be forced, so families shouldn’t get too hung up on the fiction vs non-fiction categories. Start with the child’s interest and build on their existing motivation to read. From there, schools and librarians can advise on authors and specific books to try, to move on to more complex text and narrative, while organisations like the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education have lots of guides. Our discussion also touched on the importance of all children being able to see themselves in books as well as see the lives of other groups in society.

Making the link between reading, writing and performance offers other routes to building committed readers, by breaking down anxiety about reading. Poetry in particular can be a gateway to reading: as children memorise lines and short poems and begin to construct their own rhymes with their own voice, words are demystified.  Family members and teachers reading aloud to children also makes an important contribution to their progress in literacy (well beyond the primary years, it transpired), as does children having adults in their lives who themselves regularly turn to a book (and, no, smart phones don’t count).

Access to books is, of course, fundamental, and on that point our panel members were clear on the vital role that libraries serve, whether based in schools or local communities. As much as anything else, the discussion was a celebration of these institutions and the expertise of librarians, in enabling us all to access a breadth of reading material, to make accidental finds or take advice on new authors to try, in the process discovering and furthering our interests and passions.

The Covid-19 lockdown has left many of us with more time for reading, and hopefully that habit will persist. For now, let’s extend a big thank you to the teachers, authors and librarians (and impromptu home-schoolers) who have enabled us to access the learning benefits but also the pleasures and consolations of reading in these challenging times.

Watch/listen back to the debate here.  See our archive of previous debates here.


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