How do young people decide what sort of reader they are?

My doctoral research is concerned with young people’s development of reading identities. Many of the 13 to 15-year-olds I’ve spoken to see reading exclusively as an academic activity, with little relevance to their non-school lives: a solitary, anti-social pastime for “clever” people. Many believe, whether from choice or necessity, that reading for pleasure is not for them.

Although my research does not focus primarily on academic outcomes, reading for pleasure is a strong predictor of such outcomes and, therefore, has important implications for dealing with educational and social inequality. The social and emotional benefits to be gained from reading for pleasure, particularly fiction, are also well documented.

This, in addition to the important role identity plays in engagement and motivation, highlights the importance of researching reading identity in a cultural and educational context that privileges particular types of reader. Reading must be viewed as more than an academic activity for young people to reap its academic benefits.

“Young people see no real reason to read for pleasure”

I found families were responsible for the initial normalisation of reading, or not reading, outside school. Many of the young people who took part in this study identified being read to by their parents or another family member as critical in directing their reading journey – and for being responsible for setting them off on that journey.

Families were most successful in raising readers where they provided continued support and encouragement even once the basic skill of reading had been acquired.

However, they often stopped reading to their children once they could do it themselves, which suggests a lack of purpose beyond the functional. In several cases, parents treated reading as simply a “common sense” way of getting ahead in school.

Where families withdrew from young people’s reading lives, the impact of school conceptualisations of reading was particularly strong. The school created a space for reading for those who saw little purpose for it beyond school, or felt they did not have the time for it.

Very few of my participants claimed to dislike the reading they did in school, and even reluctant readers viewed it as important for academic success and, in turn, success in the labour market. However, this was rarely enough to encourage them to read outside school.

It is not the act of reading itself, or even the specific texts being studied, which prevent young people from reading for pleasure, but the fact they see no real reason to read.

In fact, when writing about and discussing significant reading experiences, participants rarely placed emphasis on the texts themselves, which they often were unable to recall.

In some cases a lack of interest in reading was justified by its perceived lack of use in getting them to where they wanted to be, or believed they would inevitably end up if they felt that this did not require strong reading skills or academic success. Moreover, for those who did not read outside school, grades, levels and sets were the only indication of the “kind” of reader they were. They had no other experiences to contextualise this and no other way of validating themselves as readers.

This research highlights the importance of non-school reading experiences and support networks in fostering positive reading identities. Parents need the tools to present a non-school model of reading to enable more young people to benefit academically from reading for pleasure.

These findings call into question schools’ ability to raise readers and the level of responsibility often placed on them to do so. That is not to say that schools do not have a role to play in reaching those young people who will only experience reading in school. Rather, it is necessary to reflect on what this role might be and acknowledge that schools alone can only achieve so much.

Chelsea Swift is a PhD student at the department of education, University of York