Reading for pleasure: Sustaining and developing your school’s reading culture

Written by: Professor Teresa Cremin | Published:
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How can we build on the buzz of World Book Day to develop our school’s reading culture? We must focus on an evidence-based approach to reading for pleasure, not an activity-oriented one. Professor Teresa Cremin explains

Earlier this month, schools across the country were alive with talk about texts, reading assemblies, book-based quizzes, art activities, reader recommendations, author visits and more.

Capitalising on this energy and enthusiasm for reading is surely a no-brainer. World Book Day – which took place this year on March 2 – offers schools a launch pad to raise the bar on reading for progress and for pleasure, and with carefully planned intent and implementation, impact on even the lowest attaining 20% of students is possible.

As research studies show, and the OECD (2021) confirms, the will to read influences the skill and vice-versa.

International tests for both 10 and 15-year-olds (PIRLS and PISA) persistently indicate that those young people who choose to read at home in their own time – regularly and widely – score far more highly on reading attainment tests than their peers who do not choose to read at home. It is a perhaps obvious fact, but it bears repeating.

The advantageous habit of reading

Book reading makes a difference. It is positively associated with richer general knowledge, larger vocabularies, improved spelling, higher reading comprehension, and wider school achievement (Torppa et al, 2020).

It is also associated with enhanced psychological wellbeing and better adjustment at the start of adolescence (Mak & Fancourt, 2020).

Furthermore, fiction reading is linked to the development of the imagination, empathy and mindful awareness of other people’s values and cultural practices (Simpson & Cremin, 2022).

As Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector, said last year: “Reading is the gateway to all learning, a vital life skill – reading to learn, to expand horizons and for pleasure.”

Reading roadblocks

However, far too many of our young people can read but do not choose to do so – they have not yet found what's in it for them. They are disadvantaged learners. Their access to the curriculum is radically reduced. They may still struggle with the skills, have low self-esteem as readers and may not have had positive experiences with reading in the past.

In Book Week, they may well have been tempted by the break from timetables, perhaps dressing up, and a more relaxed atmosphere, but unless they engage in regular recreational reading in the world beyond school, then they will be held back – academically, personally, and socially.

Might school provision and practice be operating as a reading roadblock?

Worryingly, drawing on a recent survey of eight to 18-year-olds, the National Literacy Trust reports the lowest levels of reading for pleasure since 2005, with boys and pupils on free school meals representing particular cause for concern (Cole et al, 2022).

So how can schools respond to this situation, address diverse inequalities, made worse by poverty and recession, and reduce the gap between the reading rich and the reading poor?

Avoiding relying on a series of “fun” activities is key. Principled practice, which commences with baseline data collection and enables strategic planning to develop school-wide cultures of reading is far more effective.

Building a school reading culture

Drawing on my own research and work with schools on building communities of readers (Cremin, 2019), I find that in the most successful schools, headteachers and staff model their own pleasure in reading, retain reading on the school development plan year-on-year, and adopt an evidence-based approach to reading for pleasure, not an activity-oriented one.

School-wide activities such as celebratory reading events and author visits enrich intentionally planned school provision – they do not replace it. Over time, reading cultures are created and embedded in the fabric of the school, staff interact around reading with pupils (and with one another), and critically, recreational reading within and beyond school rises.

In these instances, the three Rs of reading for pleasure are brought into play…

Responsibility – Rigour – Relevance

Taking collective responsibility for reading for pleasure involves all staff in developing knowledge and understanding of the evidence base showing the benefits of being a habitual reader, and of national expectations.

Policies in all four nations of the UK recognise the power of volitional reading, and the forthcoming Reading Framework (years 2 to 9) in England – expected to be published in the summer term – also profiles this. This follows on from the 2021 framework aimed at ages 3 to 6 (DfE, 2021).

Educators also have a professional and moral responsibility to know a diverse range of contemporary texts written for the young and to know their students as readers so that they can tailor their text recommendations and discuss texts with them that are relevant to their pupils’ social, emotional, and cultural lives.

Such responsibility is more of an ethical stance than a matter of accountability; it recognises teaching as a relational practice.

Schools also need to take a responsible and rigorous approach to their book stock and text access, ensuring that young people are involved and building ownership in the process.

Pedagogical rigour is critical too, staff need to know how to motivate readers and to act on this knowledge. Reading for pleasure is not a “nice to have”, an anything goes space.

Reading for pleasure pedagogy needs careful planning, and, as with any area of the curriculum, it needs to be properly monitored and evaluated, not just at the year’s end with a quick survey. If a school’s reading curriculum is not impacting on the recreational reading practices of disadvantaged and disengaged readers, then clearly the planned provision needs adjusting.

The Open University and many other organisations offer support for developing reading for pleasure and school-wide reading cultures (see further information), enabling schools to address the three Rs of reading for pleasure.

Reading for pleasure should not be left to chance, nor just to World Book Day.

  • Teresa Cremin is professor of literacy education at The Open University and co-director of the Literacy and Social Justice Centre. An ex-teacher and teacher trainer, she now undertakes research and consultancy. Her recent books include Reading Teachers: Nurturing reading for pleasure (2022) and Children Reading for Pleasure in the Digital Age (2020). Teresa supports volitional reading in various ways, including a dedicated research-informed website at and the year-long Open University Reading Schools Programmes (primary and key stage 3).

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