Reading for Pleasure and Purpose: A School Librarian's View
By Karen Whitelegg, Learning Resource Centre Manager
Several years ago, I was having a conversation with a senior science teacher who said he didn’t read for pleasure. “Not true,” I replied, “you read for pleasure all the time”.
“That’s just bird magazines, not fiction, not literature,” he said, “that’s not reading.”
This perception that reading for pleasure has to be fiction, and literary fiction at that, is a problem.
Reading for pleasure is the act of reading what makes you happy. If that’s bird magazines or recipes, poems, plays or graphic novels, books about the history of trains, a classic novel or the latest supermarket thriller, so be it. It’s you who is doing the reading and not someone else, so why should it be an expectation that everyone needs to read the same things?
In schools, we then have an issue.
On the one hand, we need to encourage students to read for purpose, to read widely, and extend their vocabulary. On the other hand, we want them to read for pleasure and become lifelong readers with all the benefits that bestows. The key question is, are these two purposes mutually exclusive?
Just as you would practice to get better at sport, students need to exercise their reading muscles. This stretch and challenge reading helps students to develop fluency, stamina and vocabulary. Unfortunately reading for purpose doesn’t come with the endorphin boost that makes physical exercise pleasurable. It can be a chore. 19th-century literature has long complex sentences and words we no longer use in everyday speech, and Latin terms in geography and science can be hard to get your head around. The reward is indirect; it is in making study easier. In Closing the Vocabulary Gap, (1) Alex Quigley stresses the importance of “disciplinary literacy”, that is “reading though a subject-specific lens…paying particular attention to the specialised ways in each subject discipline (2020, p.150). Therefore, schools and school libraries need to develop these skills through extensive reading, regardless of personal enjoyment, and in the teaching of subject-specific vocabulary in lessons.
However, there has to be a balance. Yes, we want to help our students develop academically, but we also want them to love to read in whatever form that reading takes for them.
This is where the role of the school librarian is crucial. We are able to step away from the curriculum, taking off our metaphorical mortar boards and then put on our ‘reading is fun’ hats. We can wax lyrically about the newest big thing, be it Heartstopper or the latest Wimpy Kid, or we can read aloud from a horror novel, whetting a student’s appetite for what will happen next. We have time to listen as a student tells us the whole plot of their favourite book, or shows us the maps or pictures that have shaped their reading experience. As school librarians we suggest what to try next. We’re very good at “what about…” or “have you tried…”. We keep abreast of films, TV programmes and popular culture, we keep up with reviews and recommendations, with authors and publishers, with Instagram and Tweets. We put books on shelves and magazines in cosy corners, where students can read in comfort instead of at a desk. We build a reading for pleasure culture. We know our school communities.
Reading for pleasure does many things. It improves a student’s chances of getting better grades in exams, a better job, making more money, as does the academic building of technical language; but it is also for improving mental health and well-being, for empathy and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (National Library of New Zealand) (2). We laugh and cry with the characters, feel ourselves walking the streets and kicking the footballs, our hearts are in our mouths as danger strikes and we are elated by triumphs over adversity. We travel to far-off and fanciful lands without needing a passport. So, today when a group of sixth-form students, who had spent their years’ worth of energy on study and exams, needed an end-of-term pick-me-up; it was part of my job as school librarian to step away from the normality of a school day and to read them a story. We went back to circle time, when stories were just fun and we could look at the pictures and see ourselves in them, whilst sharing a communal experience. This to me is the quintessence of comfort reading.
So, to answer my own question are these two purposes mutually exclusive, I believe that the answer is no. The author and ex-Honorary President of the School Library Association Aidan Chambers (1993, 18) (3) wrote that in reading “we constantly look for connectedness, for patterns of relationships between one thing and another”. This idea could as easily be applied to etymological links in language between multiple subjects, the synthesis of ideas culled from the pages of a novel, or even a mixture of the two. These reading experiences enrich our understanding and vocabulary. There has to be a place in schools for both reading for purpose and reading for pleasure as the two together have a crucial role in both education and life in general.
And don’t forget, that a school librarian is very adept at wearing two hats.
Karen’s Recommended Reads
Mama and Mummy and Me in the Middle by Nina LaCour, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita. Walker Books.
A wonderful picture book about how we cope with missing things and people we love, with an LGBTQ+ aspect as the family is non-binary.
h3. The Light in Everything by Katya Balen, illustrated by Sydney Smith. Bloomsbury.
Two families each with a tragic past fine love and hope together. Includes coping with grief and domestic violence.
Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale by Hannah Durkan. Hachette.
What happens when you get your wildest wish. Eco and divided society themes.
The King is Dead by Benjamin Dean. Simon and Schuster.
LGBTQ+, racism and media manipulation all feature in this story as the new King, who is black, faces a hostile reception.
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson. HarperCollins.
The HMRC, based in a tax office in Manchester, are witches who counter deadly threats to the UK. LGBTQ+.
1. Quigley, A. (2020). Closing the Vocabulary Gap. Abingdon: Routledge.↩
2. National Library of New Zealand. (no date). Reading for pleasure — a door to success. Available here ↩
3. Chambers, A. (1993). Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk. Stroud: Thimble Press. ↩