School starts back and a few weeks in, there's talk of tests. For years 10 and 11, the focus on GCSEs started the moment students walked through the door. With so much seeming to depend on results, the slightly more relaxed attitude of the summer term seems far away. It's easy to understand why we focus so heavily on public examinations and their results but real success, the best grades we can achieve, don't come from just teaching to the test. We need to remember to balance facts and figures, comprehension and comparison with broader opportunities that help our children consider things in their own, unique way. We need to encourage reading for pleasure.
The Department for Education reported that '17% of our 15-year-olds did not achieve a minimum level of proficiency in literacy' in the 2012 PISA results. This is roughly the average across OECD countries but it's still too high. Perhaps more significantly, the gap between the highest and lowest reading scores of young people in England, according to PISA, was above average. The aim to develop the habit of reading for pleasure is a part of the national curriculum but when we set specific objectives on the road to later assessment, the 'pleasure' part isn't as obvious and increasingly, this is a problem. Much work has been done, particularly at primary level, on improving literacy skills but the issue remains that in school, there is little time (or willingness) to find room for something which isn't assessed. What can't be tested isn't measurable and, far too often, is consequently deemed less valuable. But in the case of reading for pleasure, the opposite is true.
Of course, reading for pleasure helps strengthen all the skills which improve grades; breadth of vocabulary, sound spelling and syntax, improved writing style and greater comprehension of what we have read. So too can it help elsewhere; Maths, Science and other subjects as we better access the whole curriculum. Further, and incredibly importantly, it narrows the gap, helping disadvantaged students to match their peers. It's not just that doing it helps us achieve more; it's that not doing it can prevent us from achieving our potential.
But we can't just talk about grades. We should instead promote books as refuge, some 'me' time, where we're not constantly bombarded by the demands of many with no interest in the one. Other moments, other lives, other worlds, other times- reading for pleasure allows us to experience what we haven't (yet) had the chance to think or feel in the real world, increasing our cultural awareness and piquing our curiosity. It can offer us a chance to escape; flight from our fears and comfort in our crises. Reading for pleasure allows us to take risks. Through it, we can learn about emotional and social consequences and, as Mem Fox asserts, 'experience troubled realities that are different from our own'. In a world which feels increasingly threatening, we, understandably, seek to over protect our young people, denying them the freedom to explore that we had. Reading for pleasure can show us a world of (manageable) risk. It can better equip our young people for a future we try to imagine but cannot accurately predict.
Our children must see us as readers; at school and at home. We need teachers who model reading. Too often, even in schools which wisely devote a slot in heavily loaded timetables to free reading, teachers don't model good practice themselves because of the demands of marking or planning that this short slither of time allows them or the feeling that their senior managers will think they're not pulling their weight.
Beyond school, we need pro-reading homes. This doesn't demand that parents must be confident readers themselves, just that they are willing. So many parents give their children an invaluable step up through reading. They curl, sometimes sleepily, often uncomfortably, to read through the words which give the accompanying pictures a richer meaning, taking their children on flights of fancy to new worlds. But when a child is old enough to read proficiently to itself, the act of sharing a book too often stops. We need to keep reading, keep talking. We should live our guilty pleasures; read books, carry books, pack books in our children's bags and ours. We should make sure that we always have another world to explore close to hand. We should encourage our young people to devour what is written. Through reading, we can learn, discover, communicate and compete.
As Clark and Rumbold stated ten years ago, 'we must see reading for pleasure as an activity that has real educational and social consequence'. This is then a reminder, a wake-up call, to (head) teachers and parents. We need to prioritise reading. We need to make time and create environments in which young people chose to read. If we wish to encourage them to read for pleasure, we must be the readers we wish our children to be.
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