Re-reading for Pleasure and Purpose

repeated reading

“My child only ever reads *insert book or series here*. How can I get them to read something different?”

Any primary teacher will tell you that there are some questions regarding children’s attitudes to reading that never seem to go away. One that I’ve spent a lot of time considering is the issue adults- both parents and teachers- have when a child is repeat reading the same book or series of books. The concern is that the child treads water academically, consequently restricting their breadth of experience. More often than not I’ve found the questioning adult already has a solution: to interest the child in a new book of a similar theme. The hope is that I, as the teacher, can suggest the right one.

The Answer Is You Shouldn’t…

I’ve found this to be something of a poisoned chalice. Introducing children to their next favourite book or finding something to excite a reluctant reader is a wonderful thing, but what about when the child has already found that perfect match? That’s not something I would ever want to dismiss. Sometimes, the only book a child wants to read is the one they’ve just finished.

I get this; I read like this as a child and to some extent if my ‘to read’ pile runs low, I will happily revert to type. When I was eight I would greedily borrow Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr from the mobile library every week. Likewise, the Alice in Wonderland audio book from Earlsdon Library. At home, even though I’d inherited a stack of varied Enid Blytons from my brothers, I was only ever really interested in the boarding school books. The Famous Five never got a look in. I would read my way through Darryl Rivers’ school career up to the point where she is leaving for university and feel so sad that it was all over that I would immediately return to the very first term again.

I didn’t see a problem with repeated reading back then, and to be honest I still don’t. What we read is our personal choice. Once we question someone else’s personal choice, no matter how solid we may think our intentions are, we interrupt a crucial process.

Margaret Meek considers how children read in the brilliant How Texts Teach What Readers Learn.  This was written in 1987 and is so good that Meek’s thoughts are certainly still pertinent today. I’d recommend school leaders take a couple of hours to read through this short but mighty book for insight and inspiration. When considering the issue of repeated reading, Meek makes the excellent point that maybe we, the adults, are actually less not more skilled than children in making reading decisions. That more often than not, we are the ones who read only what we’re comfortable with and never happily take risks.

To illustrate this point, I was reminded of a conversation recently had with an ex-colleague who loves reading. She explained her favourite genre: she reads books where the plots were set in American High Schools, based around sports- ideally hockey- and involving a friends to lovers story line which is written in the first person. Pretty specific, and that’s fair enough, because as an adult she has the benefit of complete and utter control over the contents of her own kindle. Be honest, most of us do this to some extent: we stick to type.

Children, on the other hand, are constantly being introduced to new genres. More than that, they are expected to read, absorb, comprehend and even emulate texts in style, week in week out as part of their ongoing learning. Maybe they’re the adventurous ones. Maybe adults should question whether they are really the right ones to be making all the decisions about children’s independent reading habits.

What are the benefits of repeated reading? Simply this: children need to read the same thing again and again.

Truly no one reads the same book twice.

The first read might tell a child what happens, but it’s by reading for the second, third, tenth time where true discovery can take place. The practice of reading becomes easier, new words are understood and noted, sub-text is revealed too. Multiple meanings may even emerge. The child begins to get into the author’s head, to really comprehend fully the whole spirit of the book. In short, they are undertaking the sort of immersion teachers dream of, but doing it all on their own and quite naturally from an early age.

Literacy leaders won’t need me to point out how this could impact across the board when assessing reading, including the holy grail of developing inference. This is something that can be gained by reading picture books right through to Middle Grade titles. We mustn’t make the mistake of underestimating the power of something as seemingly simple as Rosie’s Walk or The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

For me it’s all about celebrating independence and trusting a child to make their own decisions. For schools running reading schemes, it shows clear progression from a mind-set that reading is about completing all the levels to one where reading is about pleasure. Now that’s something worth having a conversation about. Have that conversation. Ask the children what they love about the books they go back to time and time again. You never know, you might learn something.