Encouraging Children to Read for Pleasure, Part 1

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Books are extraordinary objects. They may be comprised of ink and paper, but once opened wide, some kind of magic happens, and entire worlds tumble out. Books enchant, enlighten and educate. They befriend and support. They can take you on a journey. They have the capacity to lift, move and surprise. They can provide buoyancy, and sometimes, they can even rescue.

Reading brings colour, vigour, entertainment and satisfaction. It builds self-confidence, competence and intelligence. It fosters hope delight and creativity. It hones aptitude, imagination and independence. Engagement with storytelling links directly to emotional development, greater social skills, wider horizons and broader general knowledge. It can make kids more articulate, develops higher order reasoning, and promotes critical thinking. It brings with it an internal sense of freedom that only fluent readers can ever know.

Alas, there are so many who do not know that freedom. As an ambassador for the National Year of Reading (2012), our central message was to create a book culture in the home—to start with the child when they’re very young. To create a love of reading for PLEASURE. If parents read to their kids from the start, children begin to associate reading with being loved. If children can fall in love with books and reading via the avenue of pleasure and being loved, we have a far greater possibility of fostering life-long readers.

We want kids to see reading as a joy, not a chore.

As a book creator and founder of Kids’ Book Review, my goal is to write books that entertain first, educate second. Entertaining books draw children into reading by falling in love with books and story. The books that really draw children in are those that allow the reader to create their own world, their own experience, within the confines of story, and of course, allow the reader to somehow relate to the characters—whether it be by affiliation or desire.

Reading for pleasure is the most difficult for children struggling to read or who are reluctant readers. As schools persist with programmes to better the literacy skills of these children, developing a complementary reading culture in the home and focusing on the pleasure of books in general is vital.

So, how do we foster a fondness for books that precedes learning to read or even comprehension?

We start from the beginning, of course.

The most active period of brain growth for humans is between the ages of birth to three, with most brain patterns set for life by the age of seven. While sharing books with children as young as newborn is vital for brain development, and gives kids a phenomenal life advantage, reading to children inutero is also believed to give kids a strong foothold for reading, helping them develop an early appreciation of the cadence and intonation of their mother tongue language, which gives them not only a language foothold but develops an eventual love of story.

Similarly, reading to very young babies opens a sensory wonderland of language, relationship bonding, visual and emotional stimulation, and the cause and effect of page turning, suspense, expectation.

As children grow, developing a reading culture in the home is one of the greatest ways to indirectly (but powerfully) support and supplement the work of teachers and librarians. For children whose home environment supports a reading culture, encouraging them to read for pleasure is a breeze. For those without, these benefits, things become more challenging.

Ways for teachers and librarians (and parents!) to encourage this home-based reading culture include:

  • borrowing books from the school library to take home; this encourages variety but in some cases, it also bring books into a home with scant or even no books
  • appointing a child to take home the library mascot for the weekend
  • setting homework challenges that involve books in innovative ways, for example, building something from a particular book from recycled materials or Lego and bringing it to school or creating pictures from a story, or going as a family to visit certain sites around town that could some way relate to a book, perhaps the beach or town hall
  • adding library and book news to school newsletters
  • running book-related competitions in school newsletters
  • using movie or internet tie-ins to highlight books for parents and children; this is a wonderful way to make the book look cool and some kids may not know this film was once a book
  • having visiting authors for children; they will talk about the experience to parents, which heightens book excitement and engagement
  • having literacy expert visits to talk to parents in the evening
  • sending home reading challenges or being part of your state or territory premier’s reading challenge
  • donating ex-school-library books to children who have few books at home
  • fostering the ideology of reading for naught but pure pleasure; making reading fun, making it exciting and cool

It’s interesting to note that homes that do provide a reading environment for children can still form reluctant readers. Studies show that children brought up in a home that viewed reading as a source of entertainment had greater reading-related skills and competencies than children raised in homes that placed greater emphasis on the skills-related aspects of reading and literacy.

Essentially, parents who believe in reading for pleasure tend to provide more opportunities in the home for children to fall in love with books, and therefore more readily acquire the desire to persist with reading, even if they struggle with the skills required.

To encourage a reading culture at school:
  • Provide a broad selection of books and hold as many copies as humanly possible of popular books. If their are budget or staff or space constraints, perhaps have a book drive for second-hand books and get kids involved in cataloguing and shelving.
  • Try to control book snobbery and teeth-grinding stereotype aversions if you possibly can. I know. It's sometimes hard! But a book is a book is a book and it’s important that kids read what attracts them.
  • Allow children to choose their own books. It doesn’t matter what kids read so long as they're reading. Much better to study or read a text that at least resonates with each child independently, than study a book that blocks any kind of learning and absorption through displeasure or even angst.
  • Harness the power of humour—never underestimate its ability to draw kids in.
  • Also harness the power of pop culture. What are favourite sports or movie stars or pop stars reading? Which book-to-movie release is particularly huge right now? Take advantage of the hype and be sure to tell kids the book is always better than the movie.
  • Have kids organise events or initiatives themselves—put them in control. What about a student-led book swap?
  • Give students responsibility—especially troubled kids who can develop self-esteem from tutoring or supporting younger children.
  • Have authors, sportspeople or well-known people visit your school and get involved in some way.
  • Think outside the square in terms of reading material. Have children locate and bring to school other reading items such as event programmes, a menu from a really cool restaurant they've been to, or even footy fixtures. They won’t even know they’re reading.
  • Also look to magazines, websites and picture books for older kids and even high school students, for enhanced visual literacy. Visual literacy helps children take pleasure in image as well as words. Use maps, diagrams, paintings. Have children look for story in paintings. Wordless picture books are also an extremely powerful storytelling medium that can enhance reading skills and foster an intrinsic love of books because they’re non-threatening textwise.
  • Have children utilise the technology they love so much to create book trailers or mini movies based on books or stories.
  • Consider oral storytelling and plays to encourage a love of story. 
  • Use books for more than just reading. Create exciting displays or have kids create their own. Use books for artistic or craft projects. While I don’t condone the desecration of books, you could use old or dilapidated books for exciting projects, or create something where the book stays intact. Make the physical form of a book exciting and creative for children and they will more likely associate this form with pleasure, excitement, emotional satisfaction.
  • E-books engage children because they’re platform-based and platforms are something kids know well. If they’re interactive, they’re a great way to engage and stimulate kids in a multi-sensory way, however, they can’t, of course, replace real books and being able to immerse into a story without distraction/constant interaction.
  • Rewards are up to you. The concern is that rewarding children for engaging in an activity that they may just enjoy anyway, could lead them to participate for an extrinsic reason rather than in intrinsic one. Intrinsic reasons are important because reading is reliant on self-efficacy or the belief in one’s own capabilities. This belief influences the choices kids make and the actions they pursue, including reading. So we really want kids to read for intrinsic purposes.
  • Frequent creator sites to learn more about authors and illustrators, their processes, behind the scene peeks. This kind of interaction with real life creators is a priceless way to have kids engage with books. Most children just see the book. They don’t see what’s BEHIND a book, and this is always fascinating. See my Riley the Little Aviator site for an example of interactive content for both adults and kids.

See Part 2, where I discuss the effectiveness of genre, reading deterrents, and the importance of humour. For visual literacy, see this post for a comprehensive outline, and learn more about the importance of picture books for older readers in my The Power of the Picture Book post.

These posts are excerpts from my professional development talk given to teachers and librarians at Marist College Canberra, June 2015.

Be sure to check out KBR for some sensational book suggestions!


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