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Reading: re-asserting the potency of the personal

Updated Wednesday, 15 April 2020
In this article, Professor Teresa Cremin considers how discovering children’s intrinsic motivation as readers can build reciprocal communities of readers.

In countries where the language of schooling predominantly focuses on measurable and often oversimplified notions of attainment, children can come to be viewed and discussed in relation to their current standards of performance, rather than as unique individuals. In such audit-driven cultures the vital personal and affective dimensions of teaching reading and of being a reader can easily become obscured, and the potential for richly reciprocal reader relationships between children and children and between children and teachers reduces.

A balance needs to be wrought between teaching the skills of decoding and comprehension and fostering reading for pleasure.Yet it is possible to build human connections between readers and texts and to make the life-to-text and text-to-life moves which are core to reading in the real world. A balance needs to be wrought between teaching the skills of decoding and comprehension and fostering reading for pleasure. Such reading is essentially volitional, intrinsically motivated, child-directed and choice-led. It has making meaning at its heart.

In order to build reciprocal communities of readers who can and do choose to read and who think and talk about what they are reading, I believe we need to re-assert the potency of the personal in reading. Personal emotional responses include care, concern, sympathy, sadness, excitement, exhilaration, fear, boredom, anger and indifference, to name but a few. Our responses motivate us as readers to persevere and to read on, or to exercise our rights as readers and step away. Either way our responses often prompt us to talk to others about our reading, whether it’s a worrying news item, an amusing text message, a surprising Facebook entry, or an unnerving novel. Reading opens up conversations between readers about their views and values, lives and experiences, it enables us as humans to consider who we are, what we and others stand for and what we feel about personal, social and cultural issues.

Such conversations cannot be left to chance. They are a crucial element in a rigorously planned and responsively executed reading for pleasure pedagogy that creates communities of readers. Pedagogy is one of CPRT’s eight priorities. Indeed as CPRT asserts, teachers need to

Develop a pedagogy of repertoire, rigour, evidence and principle, rather than mere compliance, with a particular emphasis on fostering the high quality classroom talk which children’s development, learning and attainment require.

But how is the profession to develop such a pedagogy for volitional child-led reading? And how can this be planned for and integrated into the daily fabric of school life when, as a deputy head told me this week ‘It’s not assessed, so frankly we find it hard to give any time to it’. While the profession undoubtedly wants to avoid ‘measuring the pleasure’, volitional reading demands careful nurturing, ongoing invitations to engage, imagine and be inspired. A planned reading for pleasure pedagogy is needed, based on evidence and principle. The UKLA research project Teachers as Readers suggests that this encompasses four core elements: enticing reading environments (physically and socially), a rich read aloud programme, the provision of quality time for independent choice-led reading, and space and time for informal talk about texts .

In the UKLA study, many of the teachers (from 27 English schools) started by conducting an audit to determine the opportunities currently on offer for children to read for pleasure and the space made available to talk about their choices with one another and with teachers.  Most found that adults were the ones controlling the reading on offer to children. In particular, talk about texts was confined to the official literacy curriculum, to guided and shared reading where children’s responses were commented upon and evaluated according to the daily learning objectives. There were few real spaces for non-assessed relaxed reading conversations (in pairs or small groups), and few opportunities to talk informally about children’s responses (to literature or non-fiction), to discuss personal preferences, home practices or what being a 21st century reader might involve.

I fear this is still the case in many schools where literature is seen as a resource for literacy, staff are not encouraged to widen their pedagogic reading for pleasure repertoires and lip service is paid to children’s intrinsic motivation as readers. Too often extrinsic motivation rules. This may be evidenced through ongoing and high profile tests and targets, school-wide competitions about reading at home, and awards for those children who read higher numbers of books. In such schools limited talk and creative interaction around texts is likely to be heard, constraining personal responses to reading.

In the Teachers as Readers project, teachers’ talk about self-chosen children’s books was initially dominated by a professional focus: they concentrated on what literacy objectives the book was good for (e.g. teaching character, plot, setting and specific language and literary devices) and often talked about how long the book would sustain a literacy focus and the amount of work it could generate. This talk was largely at the expense of mentioning the content or meaning of the narrative, or of how individual books affected them personally or might affect children.

In complete contrast, when the teachers discussed their self-chosen adult books, meaning and affect were foregrounded; personal views and emotional responses were voiced about both fiction and non-fiction and emerging social, cultural or moral issues were spontaneously discussed.  The teachers shared myriad connections to their own lives and in the process got to know more about one another – their values, families and life histories for example. This disconnect between talking about children’s texts and their own adult reading material was significant. It was fed back to the teachers, who began to re-consider what counts as reading in their homes and schools. Gradually, as they began to  read much more children’s literature, they came to talk about it as worth reading for its own sake – to be experienced, enjoyed (or not) and debated. Recognising that affect and engagement were crucial in motivating their reading, the practitioners began to share their own responses to texts in class and gave increased attention to children’s personal and emotional responses. They also set considerably more time aside for reading aloud.

Reading aloud offers an invitation to children to engage, imagine, predict and participate in the classroom community of readersReading aloud offers an invitation to children to engage, imagine, predict and participate in the classroom community of readers; though much will depend on the quality of the text, who chose it, and the teacher’s capacity to bring it vividly to life, as well as whether it is read as a precursor to related writing activities.  It is not an ‘extra’ to be included if time allows or the children’s behaviour is deemed satisfactory.

This crucial pedagogic practice has personal, social and cognitive benefits and offers an externalised model for silent, independent reading, enabling children to experience the patterns, language and tunes of texts which they could not yet read independently.Significantly, the shared experience of being read to draws the class together in a kind of bonding time and establishes ‘texts-in-common’ whichprompt interaction. Other ‘texts-in-common’ emerge when teachers and children and children and children recommend reading material to each other; such two-way recommendations also trigger conversations and connections. Whilst these chats may happen in the interstices of the school day, making time to touch base with others and voice your thoughts and feelings about a text helps build connections between readers. These opportunities for personal interaction, reader to reader, offer invaluable support and help create a reading culture.

Reading Teachers – teachers who read and readers who teach – can often draw on a wide repertoire of children’s literature and other texts and their knowledge of the young people as readers. They are better positioned to reach out to individual learners and share texts that will interest and intrigue them, this is a much underrated professional skill which can make a profound contribution to the development of individual readers. Their classrooms are often characterised by informal text talk and book gossip as readers swap, recommend, debate and discuss their reading. Additionally Reading Teachers may foster wider human connections and empathetic responses to the plight of others. As Neil Gaiman, the children’s writer, notes:

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

EmpathyLab, an exciting new social action start-up led by Miranda McKearney (ex CEO of the Reading Agency), is exploring ways to nurture children’s empathetic innerstanding through words and stories. As the team argue, children’s social and emotional skills are increasingly recognised as vitally important for their wellbeing; they represent the basis of sound relationships and a trusting classroom ethos and can be fostered through talk and interaction about texts, potentially leading to social action. Their team’s work with schools has myriad connections to CPRT’s aims for primary education. As Robin Alexander’s recent CPRT submission to the House of Commons Education Committee reminded us, these aims focus on the individual – their wellbeing, engagement and autonomy, and on the relationship between self, others and the wider world – in particular encouraging respect and reciprocity and foregrounding the role of dialogue in learning.

Reciprocity and interaction are key markers of reading communities. In these, teachers share something of themselves as readers and as humans and make the time to find out more about the children and their everyday reading lives. They might do this through undertaking Reading Rivers (where children and teachers create collages of their recent reading in all its diversity), and build upon the variety documented by widening the range of reading material welcomed in class. When children are invited to bring something of their reading selves to school, are offered engaging spaces and dedicated time to read their self-chosen texts, and experience texts read aloud evocatively, then the boundaries between reading in school and beyond begin to blur and reading discussions become more shared. In such communities there is a high degree of informal interaction around reading and a sense of reciprocity – of giving and receiving as readers, and as individuals.

We need to re-assert the potency of the personal, the essential reciprocity of human relations and the significance of affect and interaction in reading and in learning.


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