Getting children to read for enjoyment

As classroom teachers and parents, we all know the struggle of getting some of our children to read for the pure enjoyment of it. On the face of it, looking at the reading habits of our class can baffle us, especially when we compare the avid readers with those who wouldn’t read a label on a food packet. So how can we change these habits and get all of our children reading for pleasure?

1.      Monitor and analyse

Before you can change any habits, you must first understand your classroom dynamics. Most primary schools will ask that children read to parents at home each night, and this is usually fairly successful in the lower years. However, from personal experience, when children stop reading to their parents, either because parents feel that their child is too old or a good enough reader to read independently, habits can fall to the wayside.

Enlist the help of the children when monitoring reading habits. Ask for a volunteer from each group to note down who is reading and what they are reading. Give incentives such as house points for becoming a reading monitor, and initially ensure that the children you choose have strong reading habits themselves. This idea can be extended further by having groups challenge each other to see who can read the most during each week- though a word of caution, make sure there is some way of checking that the children have indeed read the book and are not shying away from the responsibility of being truthful.

Once you have an idea of who the non-readers are, it is essential to analyse whether there any barriers to their learning. We all know that we are much less likely to do a task if there is something in our way. Check that the children are on track with their phonics knowledge, so they can at least decode the words on the page. Set up a phonics station with games for those children who need some daily practice, and use free time to give structured intervention.

2.      Set up a classroom library

Before I talk about setting up a classroom library, I have a confession to make. Over the years, I have spent a ridiculous amount of money setting up libraries. There is a charity shop in town who sells pre-loved children’s books for 35p each, and they are usually great quality. I’m not going to suggest that you spend money to get your library up and running, though if you do have some money to spend, I would highly recommend scouring the charity shops nearby, or asking local libraries whether they have any to donate. Our library has small sales a couple of times a year, and the books are cheap.

So how do you set up a library without spending any money? One way to do this is to send a letter home to parents asking if each child can donate at least two books to the class. Although I am someone who will reread books, I know a lot of people who will only read a book once. Save those books from being stuck in a cupboard the rest of their lives. This means that you will have at least double the number of books to children, and books from home tend to be the ‘big guns’ of children’s literature- the books that we all know and love.

Encourage the children to take it in turns to be the class librarian to ensure the area stays neat and tidy, and if you can make it comfortable with cushions and rugs then definitely do so- you want the children to have every reason to ask to sit and read.

3.      Use sales techniques from the big companies

There are two techniques in particular that I want to discuss. Number one is to write comment/ review cards for the book that you have read (like in Waterstones). Although you don’t want to clutter up your shelves by having too many review cards, they can be kept in a drawer and rotated round. For those children who aren’t big readers, having a review to base their book choice on will take away some of the stress of choosing the right book for them.

The second technique is to group novels by the same author in the same place. This is done in bookshops anyway because texts are alphabetised, but recently, in the charity shop mentioned before, they moved to this system too. It meant that anybody looking for Horrid Henry books, or ones by Enid Blyton, would have a whole section to peruse making it less likely that they would run their fingers along the shelf and choose one at random. Don’t underestimate the power of a sequel, trilogy or collection, especially when you have got the child hooked on the first one!

4.      Stir it up- use a new scheme

It is easy for children to become bored with the same old scheme used throughout the school, and even computer-based apps come under fire. Don’t be afraid to adapt what your class is doing if the whole-school system doesn’t seem to be working.

In one school I worked in, the librarian had a fantastic way of engaging avid readers. Sometimes our worry about those children who hate to read supersedes those who read widely and often. She collected small paper bags, like those you would get at a sandwich shop, and put a mystery book inside. Those children who wanted to would select a book at random to read and review.

Other schemes can be relatively cheap. Take my Mind the Gap booklet as an example. There is a map based on the tube stations in London, but instead of the station name, an author name is present instead. Children can journey around London, completing a new task at each station they arrive at. The map can be printed out on A3 (though when I used this I got a company to make A2 posters for the classrooms) to create a reading display in each classroom. Mind the Gap can be differentiated; instead of completing only the task, the children could find information about the author, or if they are old enough, read books by that author.  Link it to whole-school prizes; we gave raffle tickets to the children for each book they read and two lucky winners won Kindle Fires at the end of the year.

5.      Share your favourite books and encourage the children to do the same

I do believe that this can work for both primary and secondary teachers- only because I tried this when I was a Head of English. I found a teddy bear covered with dust in the cupboard, and asked my Year 10s to name him (he became Godric). Each week Godric would hold a new card stating the name and author of a book as well as a short review. I went all out and told the children what “Godric read this week”. I’m sure they probably thought I was crazy, but it meant that I was able to guide them to books that I wanted them to read.

When I moved into the primary sector, Godric got a police outfit (mostly to hide a massive rip in his back) and became Police Bear along with a little Labrador dog called Ella. I did a short stint as a supply teacher when I started the business, and Police Bear visited every school with me, in a box full of resources and books.

If you have space, having a display, much like in a real library, will allow the children to share their favourite stories with one another.

6.      Know that your library needs to evolve

Remember that setting up a classroom library needs to be an ongoing task. As children finish all of the books they once brought in, others will need to take their place. If you are lucky enough to work in a school that has more than one form entry, one way of keeping the books fresh is to swap your whole library with your other year group teachers.

One final way to get more books into the lives of your children is to check whether your local library will lend the school a box full of books- I know our local library does. This can be particularly helpful when you are studying a topic as you will be able to have a library linked to all aspects of your teaching.

About the author: Now an English consultant, Jill formerly worked as both a secondary Head of English and a primary teacher.

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