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Empowering teachers to help children read for pleasure

Professor Teresa Cremin and her Reading for Pleasure colleagues are using their ground-breaking research to develop teachers and inspire children across England and further afield to discover the joy of reading. Here Teresa explains how the research has influenced the reading lives of more than 180,000 children and supported over 7,000 teaching and literacy professionals. 

Reading for pleasure sparks children’s imagination and conversation supports their emotional wellbeing and cognitive development. The National Literacy Trust recently reported that children who own books are six times more likely to read above the level expected for their age. Nonetheless, the same study also found that one in 11 disadvantaged children don't own a single book. There is also compelling evidence that children in England read less often and don't enjoy reading as much as their counterparts in other counties.

During the past decade, my colleagues and I from The Open University's (OU) Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology (CREET) have been working to understand and address the root causes of this challenge. Studying primary schools across England, we've found that teachers' limited repertoires of children's literature, tendency to underestimate pupils' everyday reading habits and focus on reading proficiency rather than engagement remain significant barriers to developing the habit of reading in childhood. We've also evidenced that developing teachers' reading habits, their practice in extracurricular reading groups, and digital technologies are vital to nurturing children's desire to read.

The five keys to developing primary school children's desire to read for pleasure

In 2017, we began an ambitious project, in partnership with the UK Literacy Association (UKLA) and teachers, teacher educators, education leaders and policymakers, to use our research to foster children's desire to read across England.

Drawing on our data about the subject knowledge and practices of teachers in 27 English primary schools, from Barking and Dagenham to Birmingham, we identified the five vital things teachers need to help them encourage children to read for pleasure:

  1. Enhanced knowledge of children's literature and other texts.
  2. Understanding of children's everyday reading habits.
  3. Reading for pleasure teaching practices, such as creating time to read, reading aloud, informal book talk and sharing recommendations in a social reading environment.
  4. A 'Reading Teacher' identity as teachers who read and readers who teach.
  5. Reciprocal and interactive reading communities within and beyond school.

Building a thriving community of reader teachers

Working with colleagues across the OU and under the guidance of teachers, we developed an interactive Reading for Pleasure (RfP) website full of accessible resources to engage teachers with our research-informed approach. To put this knowledge directly into the hands of teachers, we also established a national network of professional-development Teacher Reading Groups (TRG).

Teachers Reading Group

A volunteer facilitator we train and mentor leads each TRG, enabling teachers to engage with our research, plan and implement changes to their practice and share their experiences with peers. We also give each TRG books to read and discuss.

To date, we've supported over 300 TRG in England and groups in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Dubai and Pakistan, with more than 7,000 members responsible for teaching over 180,000 primary and secondary school pupils. in addition, teachers and librarians have shared over 600 detailed accounts of how they have applied our approach in Examples of Practice (EoP) on the RfP website, allowing others to read about and benefit from their research-informed experience..

We've recognised teachers' commitment and initiative through annual awards. In partnership with Farshore publishing and UKLA, The Farshore Reading for Pleasure Teachers Awards recognise teachers and schools whose research-informed practices make a real difference to children's reading for pleasure. Now entering its fifth year in 2022, the awards acknowledge excellence in five categories: Whole School Award, Experienced Teacher, Early Career Teacher and School and Community Reading Champions.

A 2019 survey of more than 400 TRG leaders and members revealed that our work profoundly impacted teachers' practice. Nine in ten (91%) felt it had enhanced their knowledge of children's literature, 85% reported a better understanding of children's reading practices, and 79% said it had improved their practice. Moreover, 85% said engagement with the project had helped them identify as 'Reading Teachers', and 89% said they felt part of a reading community. TRG leaders also indicate that this contributed to an increase in teacher's confidence and empowerment to make changes in practice.

A whole-school approach

Between 2018 and 2020, sixty-nine schools across England also commissioned us to work with them across a year, with more than 1,500 teaching assistants, teachers, headteachers, school, and local authority leaders, to create bespoke 'action plans' to help them develop a love of reading in children. One year after our intervention, an evaluation with schools found that 96% said our research had enhanced their teaching practices. Schools have also shared multiple examples of adopting reading for pleasure practices, from teachers sharing their reading habits with pupils to introducing birthday book gifting.

Surveys of five schools in Macclesfield and eight in Birmingham showed a significant shift in pupils' attitudes. We’ve also seen this change among teachers we support in other schools to develop their knowledge and practice as they track the impact on young readers. Across 2021 and 2022, we will have worked with 111 schools, helping to create more positive reader dispositions and communities of readers.

We're also working with 170 English Leaders from 34 regional 'English Hub' schools to develop reading for pleasure training programmes. Funded by the UK Department for Education (DfE), leaders and teachers in each hub support peers from local schools.

Developing the next generation of teachers

Since 2016, we've partnered with 30 Initial Teacher Education (ITE) providers such as Edge Hill University, Cardiff University, University of Glasgow, Sheffield Hallam, and St Mary's University College Belfast to share our findings with thousands of student teachers each year. We've also worked with universities to help them create TRG groups for ITE students and trained and mentored more than 20 Reading for Pleasure student ambassadors.

The University of Greenwich has embedded reading for pleasure in its BA Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), School Direct, and Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) courses to share our research-informed methodologies with students since 2017. The University of Roehampton and the University of the West of England also include our materials in ITE curriculums.

Wider impact

During the coronavirus pandemic, the DfE asked me to chair its reading for pleasure subcommittee, advise on BBC Bitesize home-schooling resources and work with the Oak National Academy to review its daily reading curriculum for five to 16-year-olds. I've also applied our research to develop a toolkit for schools to audit their reading for pleasure knowledge and practice.

My work on these projects allowed me to contribute to the DfE’s first-ever National Reading Together Day on 16th June 2020, to help children and their parents share the joy of reading during this challenging time. I then initiated the Teachers' Reading Challenge. In just two years, the challenge encouraged more than 5,000 teachers to use reading for pleasure methods to source book recommendations, participate in discussions and submit over 2,000 book reviews. 

The Reading for Pleasure team and I also worked with Macmillan Children's Books to create Book Chat: Reading with your child, a collection of three short films and support materials to help parents, families and carers read books conversationally and creatively with children.

More recently, we worked with Morrisons and children-author Rebecca Smith to build a ‘Children’s Little Library’ in each of the supermarket chain’s close to 500 stores in England, Scotland and Wales. These book exchanges allow customers to donate books for children, teenagers and parents to pick up for free.

In January 2022, we launched our free Badged Online Course Developing Reading for Pleasure: Engaging young readers’ on the OU’s free online learning platform, OpenLearn. We designed this CPD course to enrich participants’ knowledge and understanding of reading for pleasure and promote reader engagement across schools, homes and communities. More than 2,000 people registered for the course in its first two months alone, and it has received excellent feedback.

Our work consistently shows that when teachers know more about children’s literature and children’s reading practices beyond school, they widen what counts as ‘reading’ in their classrooms and authentically recognise diversity in texts and readers. We’ve made significant progress during the past few years to help teachers develop this vital aspect of their practice. But our work is far from over. As long as there are still children who haven’t yet discovered the joy of reading, we will remain committed to this social justice issue.

Written by: Teresa Cremin, Professor of Education (Literacy) at The Open University in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies.