Time and again, research indicates that reading for pleasure can not only bring groups of people closer together, but have a significant impact on the outlook and interactions of entire communities. In this article, we take a closer look at how this process can work – and suggest tips to boost learner engagement with books.
Reading for Pleasure: the social side
As part of its ongoing Teachers as Readers research project, begun in 2006, the Open University observed how reading for pleasure, when fully supported in schools, becomes a ‘highly sociable and interactive process’, strengthening connections among peers and staff.1
In supportive reading environments – relaxed school libraries, for instance, where pupils are given choice, time to choose, and an accessible range of engaging options – children not only develop their skills in concentration and communication, but can also strengthen their social groups through recommendations, ‘booktalk’ and sharing.
Reading for Pleasure: encouraging empathy
In well-written books with robust character development and vivid scenes, a form of social bonding occurs on the page too: between the reader and the characters they encounter. If you’ve formerly been supported to cultivate a love of books yourself, you’ll no doubt recognise the feelings of empathy and insight that these narratives offer – a process that, research indicates, can ultimately connect readers with their local and global environments.
To quote the psychologist Dr Raymond Mar: ‘The empathy we feel for book characters wires our brains to have the same sensitivity towards real people.' UK not-for-profit organisation Empathy Lab has explored this effect of reading for pleasure in depth, drawing on research to show how children’s emotional responses to texts can build cognitive empathy. They found that:
- Empathy skills are more significant for young people’s academic outcomes than IQ (Public Health England, 2014)
- 94% of employers consider social and emotional skills to be just as important as qualifications (The Sutton Trust, 2018)
- Immersion in literature effectively builds our understanding of other people.2
Further research also shows that reading fiction can increase people’s propensity for charitable giving and volunteering.3
Within school, you can promote empathy in reading by offering narratives that:
- Help children understand characters’ motivations and their feelings
- Tackle key social topics for which empathy may be lacking, such as homelessness and asylum seeking
- Challenge the status quo by offering alternative points of view
- Dig deep into challenging life events, including disabilities and grief.
Every empathetic book they read gives pupils first-hand access to experiences outside their own, as well as ‘new’ ways of living – inviting them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. In short, by helping our students love reading, we can help create empathetic and globally-conscious adults.
Reading for Pleasure: the role of modelling
If you have cultivated a love of reading yourself, your own experiences can be a vital point of connection between you and your pupils, inspiring them to read too. And if you take time to ask what they’re enjoying, even seek their recommendations, you show children their opinions matter.
By nurturing schemes such as pupil-led book groups, and hosting ‘reading for pleasure’ sessions at school, keen learners can also be role models for their peers. Opening the door to opportunities like Pearson’s Share a Read campaign may help create a greater sense of autonomy and empowerment among pupils, as well as linking them up to wider reading communities. By incentivising learners to share what books they’ve enjoyed, sum up their thoughts in concise and creative ways, and look out for recommendations from young people outside their circle, pupils can grow their sense of togetherness and self-discovery.
Knowing when to step back and let pupils take the lead with their reading choices is a pivotal step in the process for educators. A 2015/16 report from Coventry University described how children benefit from learning to select books for their own reading. In classroom libraries, ‘when teachers gave children space to choose their own books to read without monitoring them, it produced reading networks and positive reader identities.’4
These are the networks that children feel empowered to grow – and continue – when their time at school is over.
How to help your learners Read for Pleasure
As educators, you’ll want to encourage every learner to read for pleasure, in order to give each one a chance to thrive. So how best to go about it?
Firstly, it’s important to offer a diversity of voices in the books your school shares. All types of readers should feel represented, irrespective of their colour, class and family background. Moreover, to promote true empathy, every learner should also be reading books set outside their own experience.
Try to offer a range that does its best to encapsulate a true variety of experience in numerous different formats – from graphic novels to newspapers, and everything in between. Comics can be effective as hooking children in to reading; joke books and magazines too.
You can also work with both colleagues and learners to create welcome spaces for pleasurable reading. Take time to review what your setting offers. If you’re lucky enough to have a school library, consider the basics: are the chairs in there comfortable? Can pupils get cosy on bean bags or floor cushions? Are there areas for quiet reading – and breakout spaces where pupils can swap ideas and make recommendations? Do the shelves look colourful and appealing?
Is your setting a place where collective magic can unfold – especially for learners with little to no reading access at home?
Don’t forget: reading for pleasure is reading that is pleasurable. If learners want to share reviews, or create imaginative responses, that’s of course an encouraging sign. But the activity ought never to feel like a chore. So make your ‘reading for pleasure’ sessions light, no-strings, and fun!
Help reading take root for the children around you, start igniting conversations that will generate their enthusiasm, and you’ll play a key part in strengthening links in classes, households, neighbourhoods, and the future world they inhabit.
Reading for pleasure is so much more than passing the time, or taking a break from lessons. At its best, it can transform lives in local communities, and beyond.
Now isn’t that a happy end worth sharing?
Pearson’s free Share a Read campaign offers students and settings the opportunity to talk about brilliant books, inspire peer-to-peer endorsements, and review great reads, with the chance for both students and schools to win some great prizes. Get more information on how to take part.
Sophie Thomson, Head of Primary English and Extended Curriculum, Pearson