Ideas to foster a love of reading in primary-age students

Written by: Dr Sarah McGeown | Published:
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How can we continue to foster a love of reading and books during lockdown and remote/bleaned learning? Dr Sarah McGeown offers some tips and ideas

We have all had our resilience tested in different ways over the last year, but witnessing the impact of the pandemic on our children has been particularly difficult. They have not just missed out on teaching hours, but playing with friends during breaks, and the structure that the school day brings.

A report released by Ofsted in November highlighted the damaging effects of school closures and lockdown, with some children losing their stamina in reading and writing, physical fitness and/or showing signs of mental distress.

It is important, as we continue to navigate national lockdown and blended learning, that we explore the different ways to support children’s learning and emotional wellbeing while they are unable to see their teachers and friends in person. Interestingly, reading books actually offers opportunities to do both. However, children often do not choose to read books in their own time.

A recent guide for teachers on promoting reading for pleasure, which I wrote with ed-tech provider Renaissance Learning (see further information), drew upon research from the National Literacy Trust (2020). They found that in 2019, 53.6 per cent of children aged 5 to 8, and 41.3 per cent of children aged 9 to 11, read daily outside of class (Clark & Teravainen-Goff, 2020).

During national lockdown and on-going remote learning in 2021 perhaps we have an opportunity to change pupils’ reading habits and encourage more children to read for pleasure at home.

Promoting reading for pleasure

Times of change and uncertainty can be incredibly unsettling, but they also offer an opportunity to reflect on our current habits and practices and think about positive changes that we would like to make. For example, this could be a good time for teachers to support children to develop good reading habits and develop their confidence in making choices for books to read at home.

Children who genuinely connect with the books that they read are more deeply engaged in these texts, and this will benefit both their learning (e.g. reading and language skills) and emotional wellbeing (e.g. as they relax, laugh, experience escapism, connect with fictional characters, or learn more about their interests).

However, teachers can struggle to develop a love of book reading among pupils. Some children have never developed the habit of reading regularly; others have sadly lost it. Often those who do not read books have poor perceptions of themselves as readers or have just not had positive experiences with books.

In our own recent research we have found that there are numerous reasons why children (McGeown et al, 2020) and young people (Wilkinson et al, 2020) do and do not read books; understanding their personal reasons for not reading is key to overcoming individual barriers that exist.

So how can headteachers work with teachers and families to encourage and support positive reading habits among more children as we continue to navigate this uncertain time? There are a number of ways to encourage reading practices, both in school and at home.

Create an online school reading community

For all primary school children, being read a (pre-recorded or live) story daily by their teacher ensures reading remains a part of their day. During lockdown or remote/blended learning, children may also like to be read a story by their headteacher, or other members of school staff. This can create a reading community within the school and ensures children remember all the staff at their school and so will be familiar with them when they return. It also makes it more interesting and exciting for children, as they anticipate which teacher will be reading to them next.

Reading as a social activity

Another approach schools can take to encourage reading is by supporting a pupil-led book club. This gives older pupils in key stage 2 an opportunity to chat about and recommend books to each other, either online or offline. Pupils should be given an opportunity to decide on the books to discuss, and teachers can join and lead the discussion if necessary. Regular meetings at a weekly book club with peers allows pupils to enjoy reading as part of a wider social activity, connect with their friends, and share their own thoughts and experiences of different books. Furthermore, book clubs may also encourage pupils to expand the genres they read.

Choice is important

For individual reading, offering books in a range of genres is key to ensure pupils have access to books that align with their reading habits, interests and abilities. Pupils also need to have choice over their reading activities, although less experienced readers may need more support to make good reading choices. For some schools, providing access during remote learning might be a challenge as pupils at home may not have access to the library or a variety of books, but there are ways to remedy this. Many schools have successfully run library “pop-ups” and exchange programmes in a Covid-friendly way – giving the opportunity for pupils to use and share physical texts.

Set aside quality time for reading

It can be useful to dedicate a time within the school day or week for pupils to read for pleasure including during school closures. When schools return this could be within a class or across the whole school at the same time. Alternatively, if pupils are still at home you could suggest a regular reading time for everyone. Check in on your students and make sure they all have new books to read for their reading session.

On-going evaluation

Headteachers, senior leaders and teachers should continue to reflect on and evaluate the reading practices they are encouraging in school and at home on an on-going basis. Are the reading practices that are being encouraged effective and supportive of all pupils – or do barriers exist for some pupils? Are solutions available to tackle this? You could request feedback from your pupils and use this to refine school practices to ensure all pupils’ reading experiences and development are supported.

Professional learning

Headteachers should also encourage CPD for teaching staff to ensure they draw upon research insights and engage in dialogue with fellow teachers to support and optimise reading for pleasure practices. Furthermore, supporting pupils to read books can be challenging if teachers have limited knowledge of the books available. You could use current booklists and reports such as What Kids Are Reading (Topping, 2020) to understand which books and genres children enjoy reading, and find out more about these books to see if they can be offered in school.

A whole-school approach

For sustained success, a whole-school approach to promoting reading for pleasure is important. This could include forming a reading leadership group and considering whether reading for pleasure should be included in school strategy documents or improvement plans. Furthermore, reading can be encouraged across the curriculum, by making a book the centrepiece of an interdisciplinary project. For example, you could consider using the book Look Up! by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola as a starting point for activities in science, history, dance and other curriculum areas.

  • Dr Sarah McGeown is a senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on children's and adolescents’ reading development, more specifically understanding what motivates them to read, and how to encourage more children and young people to choose to read in school and at home.

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