Reading: vital for life, essential for writing – Alison Tarrant
The fact that reading is a key component to a fulfilling life is not often the source of contest, and indeed, the level of evidence in its favour is nearly irrefutable.
But in order for all these impacts to be felt, reading has to be for pleasure. In their recent report on The Future of Primary School Libraries, The National Literacy Trust defined reading for pleasure as ‘reading that is done of someone’s own free will, but includes reading which is started at someone else’s request and then continued’ (1). This means that books will have to be engaging and of relevance to the reader – otherwise they simply won’t pick them up or continue reading them.
The importance of choice
Author Aidan Chambers has long been highlighting the importance of choice, and this was neatly summarised when he said: “We listen best to other people’s views when we know they respect ours.” (2)
More recently, Professor of Education (Literacy), Teresa Cremin has continued to emphasise the importance of choice: “Honouring children’s choice of texts is key, as is allowing them to exercise their rights as readers.” (3) Indeed, Cremin has gone as far as to make it a central pillar of the Reading Pedagogy – with the first element of it being Reader-led.
The choice should extend beyond the choice of book, to genre, topic, and format. While many schools have embraced this element of reading for pleasure, some have been less able to do the same. Conversations on networking platforms around ‘moving children off comics’ or certain types of books being ‘banned,’ and children being told some books are too ‘young’ or ‘babyish’ still occur. Many schools struggle to provide a wide range of resources, and are too focused on fiction, neglecting information books and magazines.
The provision of e-resources (both books and information sources) is limited across all phases of school – leaving many children unable to effectively use a journal-based search engine, and unable to find the information they need for extended essay projects.
The accessibility of digital formats and the offering of books can be the difference between a child’s pathway to becoming a reader or not. For some children, information books are simply more engaging, delivering a different experience and require a different skillset. The reasons for this restricted choice are complicated, but include a lack of specialist support in schools, limited budgets and sometimes a lack of knowledge.
Having a clear pathway, and an interested, respectful guide is essential to developing a reading habit, and this helps not only children’s lifelong chances but also their academic prospects.
How much reading for pleasure is really needed?
Alex Quigley states that in order to flourish, children require 50-60,000 words by the time they leave school. He also makes the case that: “a great deal of our development in reading, and our accumulated store of vocabulary happens incidentally and implicitly over time” (Closing the Reading Gap, Quigley, 2018). This is supported by research by UCL which showed that teenagers who read in their spare time know 26% more words than those who never read. (4)
David Didau makes the case that children should be reading for 20 minutes a day, as over the course of a year this would equate to approximately 1.8 million words. (5) The use of books across a curriculum is important to ensure that children access the range and subject specific content they need. Reading for pleasure is important, but reading academic texts is also important; there’s a unique style, a separate set of vocabulary and words that aren’t used in everyday conversation, but that are vital in an exam paper.
There is a significant body of work which shows that readers need to understand 90% of words on the page before they can gain meaning, and I’m not disputing this, but in an exam context one word really can make all the difference, consequently exposure to those instructional words are important. And, by introducing reading to the classroom within a subject you could also be introducing a child to reading for pleasure. If they then continue reading that book or paper, or search for something else on a similar topic, their reading for pleasure journey has begun.
But what about writing?
As author Anthony McGowan once said, "All authors start with the same thing in common... an obsession with reading.” (6)
Reading and writing are inextricably linked. Reading fills the toolbox of the mind with utensils to be used when writing; it provides a gallery of diverse ways to explore stories and inspires a new level of creativity. Exploring different genres and alternative approaches can be powerful, as can exploring how books are created. 'Deconstructing the idea that a book is entirely created by a single person, at a single point in time, can be empowering for those whose writing skills aren’t quite where they should be. Explaining that there’s a team behind each book, that authors can be revered even without grammar, and that S.F. Said took seven years to write Varjak Paw, all open the sense of possibility that writing, and writing well, can be done by anyone.
Reading builds creativity, and as new genres and ways of writing are explored, the possibilities for their own writing increases. The sense that there’s only one way to write is an unhelpful and reductive concept, which forces children to accept that they don’t fit in the box. Throughout school, children should be encouraged to be curious, playful and explore all the options.
Bringing it all together
Reading can subtly influence writing, but there are specific activities which can be planned and built in to reading journeys. Try these tips in your classroom:
- Reacting to reading. Ask children to write reviews or fill out a reading journal, not with the title and date, but to react to what’s happening. How are they feeling? What do they think may happen next? This is an important part of reading development, as well as being a key point for writing development. It can be a beginning on a journey to writing an opinion piece for a newspaper
- Writing in role. Ask them to do a piece of writing in the character from a book. One for the drama students
- Create a picture book. What happens if you make the text larger? Smaller? Wonky? Across a page? What’s happening in the picture? This is great to explore both how books are created, and the design and layout implications
- Change the format. Take a comic and ask for a short story. Take text and ask for a poem. Take a poem and ask for a news report. Use an illustration to light the imagination for a bit of free writing.
 http://www.aidanchambers.co.uk/readingenviro.htm - Tell Me (Children, Reading & Talk) with the Reading Environment, Aidan Chambers, 2011