Why is reading for pleasure so important?
The range of leisure options available for children today is so extensive it’s hard to know where to begin. Swimming lessons, dance classes, football sessions, gymnastics clubs, television programmes, film showings, electronic games, both educational and otherwise, are all widely available. This list barely scratches the surface, yet it serves to demonstrate just how full a young person’s leisure time can become and how much competition there is for their attention.
One leisure interest that has yet to be mentioned, for which resources are widely available, is a truly wonderful pursuit with a multitude of benefits: reading. Reading is an excellent way for a young person to spend free time. It helps build an extensive vocabulary, develops control of sentence construction, sharpens spelling skills, and supports academic attainment across the curriculum.
It is a well-documented fact that regularly reading for pleasure is linked to improved academic achievement. An Institute of Education study found that young people who read regularly for pleasure make better progress from the ages of 10 to 16 in vocabulary, spelling and even maths compared with their classmates who read only rarely.
These benefits can have a positive impact on academic attainment across the board, not to mention improving knowledge and skills that employers often lament school leavers lack, so it is clear why so many organisations and individuals devote their time and energy to encouraging children into good reading habits.
A key element in achieving this is to lay the foundations for a lifelong love of books and reading in the early years of childhood and education. It is difficult to persuade a child or young adult who dismissed books as ‘boring’ long ago that the power of imagination is something in which they should revel. Convincing them that through reading you can engage deeply, feel fully and be gripped, is significantly harder if their earlier experiences of books were mundane and uninspiring.
Hook them on books early
It is so important to instil a love of reading and books when little ones are still little. If we want our children to receive the much-vaunted academic benefits that are linked to regularly reading for pleasure, not to mention the general knowledge, the emotional and social awareness and the sheer enjoyment they can get from reading books, we need to ensure that books and reading are enticing. In the early days especially, we need to make sure they are fun.
We should hook children young and show them that books are not always about quiet time. Without too much fuss, we can bring them out of the bedtime routine and make them part of playtime too. There will always be those children attracted by the quiet contemplation that reading naturally fosters, but there are plenty for whom this is the last thing they want, especially when they are younger and learning to control their impulses.
The key is to inject energy and life into reading, otherwise children who like to be active, who want to make and do and chase and hide, may eventually pull away from books. They will leave them to the ‘bookish’ and then it’s an uphill battle to reengage them in reading of any sort, especially for pleasure.
With positive associations, children who have more complex barriers to overcome in learning to read as well as those for whom it comes relatively easily, will have better motivation and a clearer idea of the benefits of learning to read. If they know from early experience that books can be entertaining, characters identifiable and stories humorous, sad, inspirational or scary, there is greater incentive to persist in learning to read so that they can access these joys independently.
The long term impact
For maximum impact we must be creative with books, selecting reading material that will appeal and utilising it in ways that suit the individual child. Plonking ourselves down and announcing, ‘We’re going to read a book,’ just will not cut it for a lot of children and, even if they do as they are asked, it does not necessarily mean they are engaged. It is certainly far better than not reading with them at all, but there are ways to increase the impact of our reading. With a little thought, a dash of planning, a prop or two, story time can be really good fun for everyone.
This does not mean enjoyment of books always has to be all singing, all dancing. Rest assured, there will come a time when the energy invested in promoting books and reading now will pay dividends and the input of parents and carers will not be required as intensively. With positive associations and good habits introduced early, as children grow they will be receptive to the idea of reading for pleasure.
Children who link books with fun, with learning, with creating and playing are more likely to understand and embrace the concept of reading for pleasure, not reading because they have to. Let’s use books to play games, to inspire songs and pictures, to build teetering towers and bridges, and most importantly of all, to enjoy time together. If we put a little time into creating a positive reading environment now, we can reap the rewards in the future.