by Anjali Patel
Why independent reading has to be a social experience
At CLPE we do the work we do because we believe, and the research shows us, that being literate has the potential to be life changing. The research also shows us that if you are a literate child who reads for pleasure then this has more impact on your future life chances than any other factor. It is every child’s right to be literate and to be literate, they need access to high quality literature.
Unfortunately, we all know that by the time children join us in our Nurseries or Primary Schools, there are already huge disparities in access to book ownership and the invaluable shared reading experiences that this encourages. Which is why we have spent fifty years dedicating ourselves to sharing the most effective and inclusive literacy practices with our schools.
We were encouraged then that many of CLPE’s core values and approaches were integral to guidance in the DfE’s Revised Reading Framework. I have not met a teacher yet who doesn’t share the determination that all children should be able to read, regardless of disadvantages. And it is sound advice to reflect on what enables our successful readers in planning for those that have not yet benefited from those experiences and resources that develop skilled reading and, crucially, positive attitudes to reading.
Successful readers read widely and often; reading engagement supports the development of skilled reading; and reading for pleasure impacts on academic attainment.
The act of reading expands understanding of language, vocabulary and knowledge of the world. If children are taught to read for themselves, they can overcome early disadvantages because of these known benefits.
I was struck by this last point: If children are taught to read for themselves, they can overcome early disadvantages because of these known benefits. What does it look like when children ‘read for themselves’? How does this progress throughout a child’s reading journey, especially if they are to ‘overcome early disadvantages’? How can we ensure our most educationally vulnerable children are not only able to ‘read for themselves’ but they are reading ‘widely and often’ and ‘for pleasure’?
It’s a huge undertaking but one we know teachers devote themselves to year after year in the face of increasing pressure and challenge. We all know the benefits that a well-designed phonics programme can bring to children’s ability to read decodable books with increasing independence as they gain knowledge of the alphabetic code. But we also know that this doesn’t necessarily lead to sustained reading engagement and strong reader identity. Despite years of policy directive on how to teach reading, the stark reality is that fewer than 3 in 10 children are choosing to read independently on a daily basis. (National Literacy Trust Annual Literacy Survey 2023). Drilling down, the statistical picture is worse for disadvantaged pupils.
If we are to create readers not just pupils who read, we need to show children the pleasures reading can bring from the very beginning of their reading journey and show children the inherent value of being a reader. For children to even want to read independently, they first must make a connection with both the books and the experience of reading itself. Children who read independently - regularly and by choice - will likely have been influenced by an experienced reader, usually an adult with whom they share a warm relationship. They often connect reading with a social or emotional experience.
Our fifty years of research in schools has enabled us to create a book-based English curriculum which incorporates proven teaching approaches that raise reading engagement and standards and narrow the disadvantage gap. Built on 50 years of CLPE’s research, our Power of Reading programme continues to evidence impact on teachers and children whose schools have participated in the training. External evaluation of the programme, by Leeds Trinity University concluded that the programme:
enabled children to make accelerated progress in reading;
impacted on pupils who were previously reluctant to engage with literacy;
narrowed the achievement gap between boys and girls;
narrowed the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers;
encouraged children to read more often, at greater length and to talk more confidently about books.
Most recently, our Power of Reading in the Early Years project, in partnership with The Imagination Library UK and funded by Mercers' Company as trustee of the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington, was externally evaluated in 2023 by the Institute for Employment Studies and Sutton Trust.
The project involved thirty-two schools from three London boroughs, Hackney, Camden and Tower Hamlets, and reached 88 teachers and 1,461 Reception as well as Nursery pupils. The schools were selected because they all had high indicators of social deprivation. Yet again, the impact on children’s engagement and attainment is clear:
The gap between disadvantaged children and their peers was smaller in project schools compared to all pupils within the local area.
In addition, the Year 1 phonics screening check results were higher for participating schools within Tower Hamlets and Hackney, compared to the local population.
And the progress children were making from the start to the end of Reception was inspiring:
This Early Years project cemented what we at CLPE know about the impact of deep, meaningful and authentic experiences of literacy learning on reader identity and independent engagement. What is interesting though, is the knowledge that planning for children to engage in social reading experiences will influence their motivation to read independently, widely and for pleasure.
Overwhelmingly, teachers on our Power of Reading training cite the deep connection between social reading experiences of a wide range of quality texts and an increase in children’s enthusiasm and motivation as independent readers.
From this, we can draw out some key recommendations to take into the classroom:
Children are motivated to read widely if the classroom book stock has been carefully curated to link to their experiences, interests and reading habits; and if the teacher draws on this knowledge to share both favourite and new books.
Reading aloud and revisiting high-quality, well-crafted books exposes children with vocabulary and language models that they wouldn’t otherwise hear. Planning for these literate acts through sustained work with these books can close gaps in attainment and engagement.
Working over a sustained period with a high-quality book allows teachers to plan multiple opportunities for children to use and apply new vocabulary in a range of meaningful contexts, providing them with a depth of understanding as well as breadth.
Children are particularly excited to recognise the books they own or have read in the classroom or in the hands of their teacher and enjoy recommending them to others. They enjoy revisiting and chiming in with familiar books, shared in engaging ways, by adults who can model reading fluency and enjoyment.
Children develop positive reading attitudes and are influenced to read independently if the teacher plans routine opportunities for children to read with and alongside peers and experienced readers within a reading community.
When parents are supported by teachers to share books in a variety of ways, they are more likely to engage in book sharing in a way that works for their family.
CLPE is a charity that does what it does because it can change children’s lives. We are steadfast in our belief that reading for pleasure is the entitlement of every child. Our work is grounded in research and partnerships with our member schools with whom we work closely. We know what works and we want to help teachers and leaders to make the best possible difference to their own children, using Power of Reading as their literacy approach.
How we can help:
Find out more about how to build a quality book-based English Curriculum that will increase reader identity, engagement and independence from the Early Years to Year 6 and lead to raised attainment.
You might want to explore the Power of Reading book recommendations to include in a rich and inclusive English Curriculum.
You might want to try using our free Power of Reading planning for half a term before signing up to our award-winning School Membership. There is detailed planning for every Key Stage which will allow you to implement our recommendations and experience the impact on children for yourself. Scroll down to find the plans for each Key Stage here.
You might want to develop teacher subject knowledge by engaging in our in-depth Power of Reading training course. There are still some places left, both online and face-to-face.
Lots of English Hubs, MATs and Local Authorities are coming to us to support them in developing reading for pleasure cultures and curriculums in their schools. You too might want to commission a Power of Reading project for your network of schools.
Explore the impact:
Of course, don’t just take our word for it. We are driven by our research partnerships with our member schools and you can access the full research reports, including our Power of Reading Impact Report.
We would also encourage you to find your local CLPE Associate School or Federation and visit them to see how Power of Reading works in action; how it creates a rich and exciting English curriculum; how it eases the process of teaching children to read; how it increases teacher well-being; and how it raises literacy attainment for all children, even the most disadvantaged. Because this is every child’s entitlement to be literate and this is what we do.