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Teaching reading: what are our long term goals?

Teresa Cremin

In the light of the House of Commons Education Committee Inquiry into the purpose and quality of education, I’ve been pondering on the primary profession’s long-term goals for teaching reading in England. Do teachers aim to develop readers for life? Or are they positioned to be satisfied with the contemporary – and no doubt transient- notion of the ‘expected standard’? Surely the latter is nothing more than a minimum entitlement framed by assessable skills? The former, a more appropriately aspirational goal, represents each child’s maximum entitlement. This involves parents and teachers working towards developing readers who can and do choose to read, and who read with interest and enjoyment, engagement and imagination, and increasing discernment and critical reflection over time.  Such engaged readers focus on constructing and considering meaning as they ‘read the word and the world’ and are motivated to do so.

The complex factors which interact to develop young readers’ identities and the myriad of elements which characterise their experiences are inescapably ignored in such surveys

However in the influential PISA and PIRLS studies which shape ministerial perspectives and drive policy making in many countries, reading is framed more as a measurable result than a lived experience and process. These large scale surveys inevitably emphasise numerical reading scores and the self-report data are tethered inexorably to the surveys’ options. The complex factors which interact to develop young readers’ identities and the myriad of elements which characterise their experiences are inescapably ignored in such surveys. Layered upon pre-existing national assessment systems, these surveys arguably serve to constrain what counts as reading in school and are likely to limit longer-term goals.

To foster readers for life, a better balance needs to be struck between teaching reading skills and encouraging reading for pleasure – volitional reading which reflects the agency of the reader. As Cremin et al., (2014) have shown readers benefit from being invited to participate in richly reciprocal and interactive reading communities, communities which include their teachers as readers. One of the challenges however, as our book highlights, is teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature. When 22% of 1200 primary phase teachers cannot or do not name a single children’s poet and 24% cannot or do not name a single picture fiction creator, this represents cause for considerable concern. The Dahl dominated choices of these teachers (and of those responding to the National Literacy Trust 2015 survey) suggests there is an urgent need to widen professional repertoires. Such subject knowledge is not an optional extra; it is vital if teachers are to make targeted recommendations to readers, read aloud from diverse multicultural texts and be able to develop readers for life.

Teachers also need knowledge about children’s preferences and practices as readers in the world beyond school, where digital texts are often popular. Just published research indicates the synergies between children’s reading for pleasure with print and digital reading resources, and the affective, creative, interactive, shared, sustained and personalised nature of their engagement (Kucirkova, Littleton and Cremin, 2016). These synergies which have the potential to help shape teachers’ (and parents’ and publishers’) choices of reading resources will be examined in more detail at a forthcoming UKLA Research Symposium Reading for Pleasure-What Next? at the Open University in London, March 23rd 2016.

In order to advance understanding of the concept and provoke debate about policy, practice and new areas for inquiry, the symposium explores cutting-edge research which documents reading for pleasure practices. Speakers include: Professor Tonne, (University of Oslo) who led a fascinating project on reader engagement with teachers and librarians in Norway; Dr Levy (University of Sheffield) who is currently examining the barriers to shared reading in ‘hard to reach’ families; Dr Jones (University of Nottingham) who is researching inner-city adult reading groups and Dr Kucirkova (Open University) who will be sharing the conceptual work on reading for pleasure with children’s digital books. The day, chaired by Professor Cremin also involves an exploration of research undertaken and/or funded by key UK literacy charities, including the NLT, Reading Agency, Reader Organisation and BookTrust. Do join us.Among the avenues currently being explored to understand reading for pleasure, are teachers’ reading groups and the use of intersectionality theory to examine boys’ disengagement with reading. Led by Hempel-Jorgensen, this last strand of the OU team’s research has an explicit focus on how ethnicity, gender and social class intersect in producing educational disadvantage. In examining teachers’ perceptions and practices as well as children’s own experiences of reading pedagogy, the team hope to offer more nuanced understandings of disengagement and suggest possible ways forward with long term goals in mind.