Halfway through a workshop I was teaching to a group of high school students, I asked “Let’s be honest, how many of you hate reading?” Without hesitation, two thirds of the hands in the room shot up. What was fascinating was not that a group of teenagers proclaimed to hate reading, but how many of them genuinely believed it.

In our rush to meet literacy standards, ensure our children pass standardized testing and meet globally imposed goals, we have come to believe that reading for pleasure is a waste of time – a luxury that the modern student (and adult for that matter) cannot really afford. We no longer believe it’s important for them to engage with the words, as long as they are able to parrot back the required answers. In doing so, however, we have lost the most powerful literacy tool we have at our disposal.
How would literacy programs be transformed, if instead of setting out to teach children to read, our goal was to teach them to love reading?

Seeing a child engrossed in a book, is a reward in itself, but the rewards go far beyond simple joy. According to the research, there is a significant link between reading for pleasure and literacy achievement. Children who read for pleasure have greatly improved writing abilities, expanded vocabularies and are more likely to be self-motivated learners. Teaching children to love reading not only boosts literacy rates, but according to the UK’s Institute of Education, boosts performance in other subjects including mathematics. Regular reading for pleasure has been shown to have a greater impact on children’s test results than their parent’s level of education. Reading for pleasure has also been shown to increase general knowledge, encourage community participation and promote empathy and tolerance.

The question then is how to bridge the gap between functional reading and reading for pleasure?

Parents remain one of the primary sources of reading education. Reading to children from an early age demonstrates that the act of reading is something to be enjoyed and shared. It opens new worlds and concepts, and offers the opportunity to explore foreign places, ideas and themes. But parents have an important role to play in modelling good reading behavior. Parents need to be seen reading: not just skimming the newspaper reading, but curled-up-in-bed reading, go-away-and-don’t-disturb-me reading, or you-can-hammer-on-the-bathroom-door-all-you-want-but-I’m-not-coming-out-until-I’ve-finished-this-chapter reading. A parent with their nose occasionally shoved in a book hints at a world worth exploring.

Choice is another significant factor. I firmly believe that a child who doesn’t like reading, just hasn’t found the right book yet. Never before have we been exposed to such an incredible range of wonderful books, particularly for children and young adults. While kids might not always choose the books we would like, it’s crucial they have the opportunity to read what interests them. Sure the classics may be worth reading in the long run, but for now a book on football, or dinosaurs or vampires, may be the best place to start. Similarly, thick books with lots of words may be daunting and instead what your budding reader needs is manga, or graphic novels, or books with lots of images and less text. As an aside many of the classics are now available as graphic novels which can be the difference between literary love and hate!

But what of my book-hating high schoolers? We went back to the basics. Each student was asked to name their favourite book. By the end of the class we had a board covered in book titles. Every single student had suggested at least one, and each was scribbling down the titles of others that had been suggested. Turned out they didn’t hate reading, they’d just forgotten how to love it.