Reading is a superpower that can change people's lives for the better. Waning engagement with reading as children get older, and the slow decline in students choosing A-Level English subjects should be something that makes us all sit up and take notice. It seems clear that for young people to be enthused about a subject, they need to understand why it's relevant to them. How is it meaningful to their lives? Why is it useful to their future life chances? Ultimately, why should they care?
Student choice and representation
Providing pupils with a range of books, and choice in content and format, is key to building inclusive reading communities that empower and engage all children and young people. Research shows that children who enjoy reading more, understand more, and are more likely to continue reading when they have the opportunity and agency to choose what they read. This choice and control over what and how they choose to read is as important for supporting keen readers as it is for engaging less confident and reluctant readers. That being said, offering choice alone is pointless if young people can't see themselves represented in the books offered to them.
Studies have shown that children’s books can support learners’ understanding of themselves and others, providing recognition, insight and empathy. Educators can make the most of these ‘mirrors and windows’ by giving young people the opportunity to select literature that represents their diverse experiences.
We’ve been working closely with Pearson over recent years to support greater diversity in literacy, through their Plotting Ahead, #DiversityInLit and My Twist on a Tale initiatives because we know that ensuring students have access to a range of diverse reading material, through the curriculum, what they read in class in Primary, the texts they study at Key Stage 3, 4 and 5, as well as via the school or public library, is key to sustained enthusiasm and engagement in reading, and in turn English.
Although the issue is now, the challenge goes back to the beginning...
Although we're seeing the decline in English study at A level, we must look to rectify this much earlier in a child’s academic journey. Students love of reading and English must take hold much earlier and requires a whole-school approach.
We know that reading skills and confidence have a profound effect on a young person’s quality of life and life chances, however as children move from primary to secondary school, research indicates a rapid drop in reading for pleasure levels, a decrease of 14 percentage points that continues growing. This transition age is a key danger point particularly for boys and children from disadvantaged communities, contributing to an educational attainment gap for the latter that extends to 32 months by the age of 16. Is it here where the issue really lies? Where we really need to focus our attention to reignite a love of English?
Reading role models lead the way
One way we can maintain that love of reading as children move up to secondary school is to instill a passion for books and reading in all students. Participating in shadowing schemes for awards like the Yoto Carnegie Medals or UKLA Book Awards can be a great way to start conversations about reading that are exciting and relevant.
When it comes to looking at the next step, where we need pupils to see English as appealing at GCSE and an attractive choice at A level, it is crucial that a reading for pleasure culture is created across the entire school. This strategic approach requires staff at all levels to be engaged in encouraging reading for pleasure amongst pupils, and they must possess the knowledge of techniques and practices for doing so effectively.
The Open University’s evidence base demonstrates that, by reading and reflecting on their own reading practices, educators make a positive impact on children’s motivations to read and the frequency of reading at home and at school. Our research supports these findings, showing that actively reading a wide range of children and young people’s literature themselves enables educators to lead by example as reading role models within the school. Children and young people were found to seek out these school staff for book recommendations, showing an increased interest in the titles their teachers were reading. Check out our annual Teachers' Reading Challenge, created in partnership with the Open University and supported by Pearson. It’s a great opportunity for school staff to expand their knowledge of contemporary children's books and develop their understanding of reading for pleasure pedagogy.
Engaging the wider school community
Reading together as a family and modelling positive reading habits and attitudes as a parent or carer has been proven to have a range of benefits for the whole family. Children of parents who read with them frequently in their first year of school were six months ahead in reading levels at the age of 15.
Activating that commitment to reading outside of school can have a profound effect on reading engagement in the classroom and can surely produce the English students of the future. Promoting free and easily accessible reading campaigns to your whole school community, such as the Summer Reading Challenge, Empathy Day or World Book Day, is a great place to start.
Studying English, and arts subjects more widely, is essential for developing the creative expression of children and young people and brings with it a host of other benefits. It is not too late to turn the tide. We need to listen to young people, give them choice, make it relevant, and make strides in demonstrating our own commitment to the subject.