A quick internet search using the term “reading for pleasure” will bring up almost 39 million hits and a huge range of “evidence” and reports, however many of these are largely anecdotal and on closer inspection often lack robust evidence. Those of us who have been working for many years at the book-face know that reading for pleasure* gives us all benefits far beyond just enjoying the book. The new report from the Reading Agency - The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment - has collated and summarised the most robust findings that relate to the non-literacy outcomes of reading for pleasure, and it contains some very powerful messages.
I was part of the steering group for this report, and am genuinely very excited to start working with this data. The report contains some very strong messages about the wider outcomes of reading for pleasure, and it should be an incredibly useful tool for everyone who works with books and reading. The report confirms that people who read for pleasure benefit from a huge range of wider outcomes including increased empathy, alleviation or reduction in the symptoms of depression and dementia, as well as an improved sense of wellbeing. People who read for pleasure also have a higher sense of social inclusion, a greater tolerance and awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, and better communication skills.
For children and young people the evidence obviously demonstrated that children who read for pleasure had higher levels of educational attainment, but what is most interesting is how it improves the overall quality of their lives. Children and young people who read show a significantly enhanced emotional vocabulary and cope better with education and social engagement.
What does the report mean?
A key finding of the report is that enjoyment of reading is a prerequisite for all these positive outcomes: people who choose to read, and enjoy doing so, in their spare time are more likely to reap all of these wider benefits. This shows us that negative attitudes towards reading for pleasure have a much wider negative impact on both the individual and society as a whole, and it’s essential that nationally we create a more positive attitude towards reading. It also shows that schools should encourage an atmosphere of reading for pleasure and that it is not enough to only have reading lessons or guided reading tasks. Children need to have a wide variety of books and other reading material at their disposal so that they can choose things to read that suit their tastes. It is far less likely that a child will become a lifelong reader if the only books they know are those on the reading scheme, and this is another reason why we need to campaign hard to support school and public libraries.
One of the most important things that we can do is exactly what we’ve always been doing – make reading a pleasurable pastime! In our work we do all we can to demonstrate that reading is an enjoyable thing to do, but beyond that we should also do all that we can to ensure that reading is not seen as an elitist pastime. Where possible, have your characters reading or engaging with books just because they want to. Keep on using your social media accounts to engage with your readers, and discuss other books. Authors have an essential part to play in engaging with their readers and supporting a national drive towards a wholly positive attitude towards reading – and that we’re already doing! I have seen first hand the difference an author visit can make to the reading habits and enjoyment levels of children and, in the light of this report, that is something that schools can not afford to disregard.
Use the report, draw on it and refer to it – write about it, share it and quote it. Show yourselves and others reading for pleasure, and push up the “cool” factor (and yes, I realise that just saying that makes me uncool). Encourage people to show others what they are reading and we’ll keep it trending. Talk about the wider benefits of reading, and make sure that the schools that you are visiting are aware of the report and its findings.
A very important point for authors is that the study has confirmed that children’s literature can be successfully used as a model for analysing everyday emotional processes, and it can support emotional development. This in turn demonstrates that reading for pleasure is an important way of combating issues such as social isolation, teenage depression, negative self-image and social and educational disengagement. In short, reading for pleasure can make an isolated and depressed young person feel better about who they are, and can make them more confident about the importance of the place that they occupy in the world.
For writers this gives us an even greater reason to tackle difficult or sensitive subject areas in our work. Not in a preachy or medicinal way, but in a way that normalises all walks of life and shows young readers that they are not alone. It is essential that young readers have the broad range of fiction that they need to enable them to develop a greater sense of belonging, and to enhance their empathetic skills. We owe it to our readers to be brave in our writing, so that we can help them to be even braver in their lives.
We all need to be part of the discussion about reading for pleasure. We can show that every single one of us, from all ages and all sectors of society, have something personal to gain from reading for pleasure that goes far beyond the pages of a great book.
Children's author, school librarian, Vice President of CILIP and member of CWIG committee.
Notes and resources
You can download the full report from the Reading Agency website here.
The report has an extensive bibliography should you wish to refer to specific studies mentioned within.
For more information about the project and the steering group please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org and I will reply or redirect your enquiry.
The Reading Agency commissioned this report and compiled it in collaboration with the following organisations: Arts Council England, Association of Senior Children's and Education Librarians, Book Trust, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Education Endowment Foundation, National Literacy Trust, Publishers Association, Scottish Library and Information Council, Society of Authors and the Society of Chief Librarians.
* For the purposes of the report the phrases “reading for pleasure” and “recreational reading” are used interchangeably within the text. We defined this as “non-goal orientated transactions with texts as a way to spend time, and for entertainment.”
The term “reading for empowerment” is (for the purposes of this report) defined as “transactions with texts as a means of self-cultivation and self-development beyond literacy”. For example reading non-fiction material such as craft or self-help books.
Both terms were used to define reading for pleasure and empowerment in all formats and media.