Easy books aren’t the route to a lifelong love of reading

Forget the pap: kids should have access to good quality books to get them to read, says Katie Ashford.

In the past I have gone to great lengths to persuade reluctant readers to pick up a book and, as many teachers will know, this is never a straightforward task.

Hopeful that their efforts will pay off, teachers can spend hours making costumes for World Book Day, creating beautiful reading wall displays, planning trips to places of literary significance, investing time and money in extensive reading programmes that over-promise and under-deliver – and pour their energy into numerous other strategies, all aiming to inspire a love of reading.

Despite all their efforts, however, they can still end up faced with a bunch of grumpy year 10s complaining that reading is “pointless” and “just like TV but slower”.

In 2016, the National Literacy Trust reported a worrying downward trend in teenage reading habits. Only 40 per cent of 14 to 16-year-olds told one survey that they enjoyed reading; a mere 24 per cent said that reading was “cool”. It’s all very worrying: there isn’t a teacher in the land who doesn’t recognise the importance of reading to build knowledge and skills, and ultimately to transform lives.

If kids find reading boring, then it seems logical to try to find ways to make reading not boring for them

If kids find reading boring, then it seems logical to try to find ways to make reading not boring for them. And so many teachers work hard to find the book that will change their view, the book that best appeals to their interests, the book that makes reading “click” for them. They might go for something gritty with a surprising plot twist like A Monster Calls, or something fun and accessible like Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

It’s a seductive idea. If pupils start on books they love, the cloak of fear that surrounds reading for many of them could be removed. Through tailored teenage gems like The Fault in our Stars and The Hunger Games, they might see that books are not to be shunned and ignored, but embraced.

It strikes me, however, that this approach is built on the false assumption that reading is dull and that it is therefore our job as teachers to find ways to make it less dull. Like parents hiding bits of broccoli in a kid’s macaroni cheese, it’s as if we are desperate to get them to just read something, as if we are begging them, and therefore conceding that reading is indeed boring and not worthy of our engagement.

If we are begging them, and therefore conceding that reading is indeed boring and not worthy of our engagement

This approach doesn’t cut to the core of the issue. What does the child read after they have finished reading that story about football or celebrities?

What if that doesn’t spur them on to read more? What do they do when they inevitably have to read something that is outside their comfort zone?

This article was published as part of a “for-and-against” feature. Here’s Joy Ballard’s piece on why kids should be allowed to read Mills & Boon

What if, instead of looking to pander to children’s tastes, teachers step back and remember what it is that makes literature great? The best writers, such as Orwell, Angelou, Chaucer, Tolstoy, Marquez, Shakespeare, have all touched upon aspects of the human condition that transcend time, place and personal interest. Rather than sugar-coating reading by giving pupils something that echoes the world they already live in, why not encourage them to break out of it and explore something new and unchartered?

Getting kids to read books they will find easy and accessible isn’t intrinsically bad, but it should not be the route to inculcating a lifelong love of reading.

As teachers, it is our job to broaden horizons and support young people to escape the limitations of their own experience. If we make reading great literature a habit – by reading daily and discussing their ideas – we help them to see the merits of reading.

Reading isn’t just about reading what you enjoy: it’s about expanding your world and being brave.


Katie Ashford is deputy head and director of inclusion at Michaela community school in north London

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  1. John Sutton

    I would love this to be true but I’d like to see some research that demonstrates this to be the case. My own experience is that as I child I read a huge amount but much preferred to read texts of my own choosing (usually war stories). I hated having books foisted on me and especially recall the deeply unpleasant experience of being forced to read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. It put me off Dickens for life. That said, I loved Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ (another war story). So another equally convincing argument could be put forward to suggest that in order to build life long readers we should not be shoving ‘Lord of the flies’ down pupil’s throats (another book I disliked intensely) but instead to allow them to explore their own interests. All the books that I have fond recollections of reading in my childhood were books I chose myself, not books that were foisted on me.

  2. Jeff Baldwin

    My daughter, now 13, seems to be following the route Katie Ashford disapproves of. Shes always enjoyed reading, but chose books below her capability, Diary of a Wimpy kid for example. Last summer we got her on To Harry Potter. She finished the series in a few weeks, followed by the Hunger Games, now she’s 3 pages into The Hobbit. I’ll try and steer her towards some of the lighter classics next; any suggestions?

    • Debra Kidd

      Once she’s done with the Hobbit, she’s going to want to get through Lord of the Rings. That’s going to take a bit of time. She might like Austen – Emma and Pride and Prejudice are good places to start. My kids also enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye (but they were boys so identified with him I think). To Kill A Mockingbird was a favourite of mine as a teen. But there’s also some brilliant teen fiction too. Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin is fantastic. And of course, the Philip Pullman Dark Materials trilogy should, in my opinion, be read by all young teenagers. One of my sons (now 25) still cites it as his favourite series of all time.

    • She might like Enchantress of the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl.

      Grendel by John Gardner is a big dark, but excellent. It helps to have an idea of what Beowulf is about before you read Grendel. If you’re still limiting what you let her read, you might want to pre-read this one to see if you’re still okay with it.

      Flowers for Algernon

      Re: classics – Hunchback of Notre Dame? (It’ll help if she watched the Disney Cartoon as a kid) Scarlet Pimpernel? (There is a book called the Rook that is based off of the Scarlet Pimpernel, it might be a good way to get her interested in the classic). Little Women?

      By the way, in the same vein as the Hunger Games series, she might like the Angelfall trilogy by Susan Ee. Bartimeaus is a good series too.

    • Try Ursula Le Guin, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Terry Pratchett and modern ‘young adult’ classics such as ‘Z for Zachariah’, books by Robert Cormier and Paul Zindel. And don’t discourage ‘books below her capability’. We all need easy reading between the more difficult stuff.

  3. Why is there always this assumption that current children’s publishing is not “literary” enough to stretch and extend their reading? Ask any school librarian and they will be able to point you in the direction of some very challenging books, written by contemporary writers, that break their readers out of the world they live in and place them firmly in unchartered territory.

    There’s also this idea that children’s reading has to be constantly moving onwards and upwards, that the next book they read has to move them forwards. Don’t confuse reading for improvement with reading for pleasure. People who read for pleasure don’t always pick up a Booker prize-winner at bedtime … sometimes they want pap, especially if they’ve just spent the past several hours reading academically.

    A child’s reading journey is not a set of stairs to be climbed. It’s a meandering path that, hopefully, eventually leads to the top of the hill but it will wander on its way, maybe going back upon itself and off to the side. This is the way of reading … going back to reread with a new perspective, to pick up something less demanding, to read a new book by a favourite author even if it’s really now a bit too easy, to find comfort in familiar words.

    True … reading (as a skill) isn’t just about reading what you enjoy but reading “for pleasure” is. If you want to make reading fun then, in my experience as a school librarian, one of the best ways of doing this is to talk to students, with genuine interest and enthusiasm, about what they’re reading. And you really can’t do this if your agenda is just to get them to read something more demanding.

  4. Interesting.A habit is something that you do regularly almost without thought. You aren’t going to develop a reading habit by restricting a child’s reading diet to works that have them reading at frustration levels. Most keen readers are omnivores, they read all kinds of stuff and this is a golden age for variety and quality in children’s literature.Why would you turn your back on that? It does seem that children get stuck on certain ‘brands’ of book and moving them on from that, building up a reading stamina is important. It’s interesting that Jeff’s daughter has moved from a quite chunky, dense book to a simpler text, suggesting that it’s not just a linear journey.

  5. Thank goodness then for school librarians! It is our remit to provide a curated collection of stimulating materials designed to satisfy the appetites of our clientele.
    Of course reading stamina has to be developed and strengthened through a variety of initiatives, encouraging parents, supporting teachers, modelling how a whole school approach to reading for pleasure can raise achievement across the board.
    The magic occurs when a story stirs both imagination and emotional literacy… empathy for realistic characters or credible worlds. Sometimes we need comfort food, that is less nutritious for the developing brain, but school librarians will provide the varied diet necessary when more complex issues can be digested.
    We recognise how important it is to allow students a free choice and are so pleased that authors, publishers and initiatives like ‘BookBuzz’ from Book Trust provide the materials fit for the purpose.
    So please can teachers and parents work with their school Librarians and public libraries to widen the choices available to stimulate the naive or jaded palettes of our young people.

  6. Debra Kidd

    My children have all been voracious readers – the eldest going on to study literature at university. Without exception, I’ve found that following their interests has worked best. That’s not that everything has been easy – one child’s interest in the Twilight stories led to The Historian, Dracula and wider gothic literature. Another found a love of American literature – from Alice Walker to Paul Auster. The trick, I’ve found, is not to prescribe but suggest. If you like this, you might like that… What all have started with though, is brilliant literature written for children. From Suess to Dahl to Pullman and Gavin to Michelle Paver – they’ve started with literature that does transcend time, that touches on common human themes and conditions. To assume that because something is written for children or teens, it’s “easy” or superficial is wrong. To assume that a damned good story is somehow cheating, is daft. Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare – they were all writing to make a living – to please a crowd. They wrote great stories. Modern writers are also writing great stories. So we should aim, I think, to get our children reading because they love it; because they get lost in it; because they see that if you read, you are never lonely and never bored. The choice of book, frankly, should be up to them.

    • I think reading is a matter of individual taste – it is not a matter of right or wrong, suitable/unsuitable etc. Maya Angelou makes the point perfectly.

      Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.
      Maya Angelou

  7. I was introduced to hard books by a primary teacher who read them to us. He read Longfellow’s Hiawatha with such concentration and attention to the rhythm that I had my mother searching the whole of Barnsley for a copy.

    • Absolutely. The only way to cope with books beyond the reading level of the class was for me to read them aloud. And never, ever expect pupils to read round the class. Any text, however good, is killed stone dead by a halting, unexpressive reading.

  8. Lesley Martin

    Being prescriptive about what children read is the surest route to dissuade them from enjoying it. Give them access to a wide range of books, from what you dismissively refer to as ‘pap’ to age appropriate classics – ie don’t try and get a 10 year old to read Dostoevsky – and let them choose what they want. Sometimes they will want to read something ‘too easy’ or not particularly well written, or heaven forfend a ‘genre novel’ and sometimes they will want a literary prize winner, a challenging classic, or non-fiction. In the same way as an adult, I will choose a Booker prize winner one day and a easy thriller another day.
    Children need to start off with books which they enjoy. Whether you approve is irrelevant. No one develops a love of reading from reading books which are too hard for them or don’t interest them – but once they have developed that love of reading, they will persevere with a more challenging book and reap the rewards.
    This is one of the reasons a trained librarian in every school is so important. Teachers do not have the time or in many cases the expertise to do what is second nature to a librarian. It is telling that this article does not mention libraries or librarians at all – Michaela school has a library but does not appear to have a librarian. The most effective thing that we can do to get children to love reading is to ensure that every school in the country has an adequately funded and professionally staffed library, yet librarians are often the first casualty of cost-cutting.

  9. Don’t forget comic books. Just because they’ve got pictures doesn’t mean they’re ‘pap’. Think of ‘Maus’, ‘Persepolis’. Asterix, Raymond Briggs (not just The Snowman, but ‘When the Wind Blows’, ‘Ethel and Ernest’).