Reading for Pleasure: challenges and opportunities

Cremin, Teresa (2020). Reading for Pleasure: challenges and opportunities. In: Davison, Jon and Daly, Caroline eds. Debates in English Teaching. Debates in Subject Teaching. London: Routledge.



Reading for pleasure, a term more commonly used in England than elsewhere, is essentially volitional, choice-led reading of any kind of text. Often described as ‘free voluntary’ or ‘independent reading’ in the US (Krashen, 2004) and as ‘recreational reading’ in Canada (Ross, McKechnie and Rothbauer, 2006), such reading is undertaken for the personal satisfaction of the reader in their own time. Recently the OECD have come to widen their conception of reading literacy that they use in the influential Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. They state:

Changes in our concept of reading since 2000 have led to an expanded definition of reading literacy, which recognises motivational and behavioural characteristics of reading alongside cognitive characteristics. (OECD, 2016)

This re-conceptualisation serves as a reminder that teachers need to recognise more than the often narrow, assessed notions of decoding and comprehension so prevalent in national tests and policies, and also work to support young people’s emerging identities as readers, their reading behaviours, preferences and practices and their desire and capacity to discuss texts they choose to read.

Yet many schools, overburdened and overwhelmed by detailed curricula and focused assessment regimes fail to find the time support reading for pleasure, so balancing the will and the skill becomes a serious challenge. Senior management, often pressed to ensure standards are raised, tend to prioritise activities that promise to deliver short-term gains and side-line reading for pleasure, despite unequivocal evidence of the long-term benefits of reading in childhood. Schools can even get sucked into ‘performing’ reading for pleasure, without reviewing and then developing enriched practice.

This represents real cause for concern throughout the primary and secondary years, especially in the light of international evidence that reveals that the frequency with which young people, and particularly boys, engage in volitional reading markedly decreases as they move through the years of schooling (Mullis et al. 2012; OECD, 2010). Furthermore, in England in the recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) (McGrane, et al., 2017), the 10 year old children’s attitudes to reading in England were comparatively low compared to their skills and in English speaking countries England had the lowest ranking for enjoyment and the lowest for pupil engagement in reading except Australia (McGrane, et al., 2017).

This chapter, examining the tensions and challenges which exist for teachers seeking to redress the balance argues that in order to build readers for life, not simply readers for the system, opportunities need to be seized to create interactive and reciprocal reading communities. Initially the benefits of reading for pleasure are discussed, then the evidence with regard to children’s dis/engagement as readers presented, before the nature of reading communities and the challenges and possibilities offered by their construction are explored.

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