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Developing readers, developing selves

Kathryn Murray

The process of reading actually changes the neural connections in our brains, enabling new thought processes to form and develop our thinking (Wolf, 2008). Indeed, the experience and act of reading embodies highly nuanced and complex social and personal practices which have the potential to transform the self and personality (Dollinger, 2016; Fischer, 2017).

‘Exposure to stories and narrative is pivotal to children’s growth. Narratives help them to understand the world and themselves.’

Exposure to stories and narrative is pivotal to children’s growth. Narratives have a way of helping one to understand the world and oneself. This is because narratives are in a timeframe of lived experience: we enter the world and live the experience as it is happening (Bruner, 1986). Accordingly, living the experience allows the reader to reflect, imagine and have emotional reactions to a diverse spectrum of possible events and people, in a way that can change and develop herself or her identity (Pahl & Rowsell, 2012; Tatar, 2009).

This conceptualisation of reading is desperately at odds with the way current UK policy shapes the early reading experiences of our young readers. The implementation of early and exclusive phonics instruction has reshaped young children’s reading landscape: assessments, ability-grouping and measuring and monitoring have all led to diminished strategies and a narrowing of the scope of the books children read (Clark, 2018).

‘Children are only taught to read through texts fully within their current phonological ability… they are not given texts they cannot decode and are therefore not expected to infer words from context or syntax.’

House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, 2005, p. 14

Many argue that this narrowing of experiences creates numerous issues. Firstly, from a strategy point of view, if children are kept within rigid ‘ability’ frames they may be unwittingly deskilled by not employing all their implicit and tacit knowledge about how language works. Secondly, what unseen impact does this narrowing of reading experience have upon children’s development of self and identity? It is worth noting here that experiencing ‘successes’ create and leave emotional traces in the child’s mind (Frijites et al., 2017). Surely we want to encourage more opportunities for experiencing success, not less?

Missing voices

The voices, perceptions and actual experiences of children are missing from the policy that informs this pedagogical picture. These voices have a really important message to tell. If we could learn to listen.

Recent research has highlighted the profound emotional weight that reading carries for young children – especially for the ‘struggling’ readers (Scherer, 2016). However, we might not truly understand the impact this emotional weight has upon children – the hierarchising and self-labelling can be a silent world. Harcourt (2011), in her conversations with three- and four-year-olds, found that the children relayed a version of their world, as they saw it, that was very different to how adults might have perceived it. Applying the notion of this ‘disjunction’ – between adult perception and how the child is actually experiencing something – to the emotional world of reading gives us serious pause for consideration and reflection concerning how we develop the teaching of reading in schools. From a social justice perspective, what can we do in school for children who do not have a rich literacy experience at home?

How do we measure the impact upon developing selves and blossoming identities?


Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clark, M. (2018). What determines literacy policies: evidence or ideology? The power of politicians over policy and practice. Education Journal Review, 25(2), 2–30.

Dollinger, S. J. (2016) “You Are as You Read”: Do Students’ Reading Interests Contribute to Their Individuality?. Reading Psychology, 37(1), 1–26.

Fischer, S. (2017). Readers as Place-Makers: The Experience of Place in the Literacy Life-Worlds of Middle Childhood. Environmental Education Research, 23(10), 1476–1488.

Frijters, J. C., Tsujimoto, K. C., Boada, R., Gottwald, S., Hill, D., Jacobson, L. A., Lovett, M. W., Mahone, E. M., Willcutt, E. G., Wolf, M., Bosson-Heenan, J., & Gruen, J. R. (2017) Reading‐Related Causal Attributions for Success and Failure: Dynamic Links with Reading Skill. Reading Research Quarterly, 53(1), 127–148.

Harcourt, D. (2011). An Encounter with Children: Seeking Meaning and Understanding about Childhood. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 19(3), 331–343.

House of Commons Education and Skills Committee (2005). Teaching children to read. London: HM Stationery Office.

Pahl, K. & Rowsell, J. (2012) Literacy and Education: Understanding the New Literacy Studies in the classroom (2nd ed.). London: SAGE.

Scherer, L. (2016). ‘I am not clever, they are cleverer than us’: children reading in the primary school. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(3), 389–407.

Tatar, M (2009) Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Wolf, M. (2008) Proust and the squid: The story and science behind the reading brain. London: Icon books.