Reading for Pleasure (RFP) is a phrase we often bandy around, but what does it actually mean, and how can we tackle it in practical terms? Why should we even bother?

For a start, that’s a rather fusty sounding phrase isn’t it? Ask people when they last “read for pleasure”, and most people will think of a novel. Even from a very young age, children assume that when you talk about reading, you mean fiction. Outside the world of books and writing, people will probably say, “umm…. I don’t know….maybe…” and they’ll struggle. Try it with your friends, ask them what was the last time they read for pleasure, and they might say, “Oh, I don’t really get the time….” or “When I was on holiday I read this book….”

Turn that around and ask the same people when they last read “anything at all”, and you’ll get a different reply. You’ll hear people talk about magazines, newspapers, blogs, guide books, travel brochures, and you’ll most certainly hear about non-fiction. That’s still reading for pleasure, and it’s definitely still reading.

That phrase, “reading for pleasure” is perhaps holding back the conversation about what we mean when we talk about reading, pleasure and learning. Hold on, we’re moving too fast, that’s another misunderstood word I’ve thrown in there – learning. When we talk about reading for learning, people often assume that we are only talking about non-fiction or instructional books, but that’s wrong too. I’ve learnt so much from fiction, and you have too.

Let’s get back to RFP for now, and why any of us should bother reading for pleasure.

In 2015 I was part of the Reading Agency’s steering group examining the wider outcomes of reading for pleasure. One of the most useful documents this group generated was a literature review looking at the impact of reading for pleasure on wellbeing and empowerment. For this document the research team examined hundreds of reports and papers looking at the wider benefits of reading. To fit the needs of the report, this had to be reading done as a free and voluntary choice. This was not an examination of reading for specific study, or for research, but reading just because someone wanted to. The study was not limited to novels, and covered absolutely any and all reading material. We called this “non-goal orientated interactions with texts”.

The majority of the research reviewed for this study related to children and young people, but the same outcomes were shown for adults too. The main outcomes reported were enjoyment, wider knowledge of the self and other people, improved social interaction, better social and cultural capital, increased imagination, improved focus and flow, better relaxation and mood regulation. Regular reading for pleasure also showed improvements in young children’s communication abilities and better longer-term education outcomes were also reported for early years children. This brings us neatly back to that word “learning”.  It became apparent that learning was deeply embedded in the process of reading for pleasure. Learning and reading for pleasure go hand in hand.

The Reading Agency’s evaluation of its Chatterbooks programme (running children’s book groups in schools and libraries since 2001) indicated many wider benefits to children and young people. The evaluation found both children and parents reported improvements in confidence and self-esteem, listening skills, self-expression and improved skills when interacting with others around them.

Using a sample of around 6,000 16-year olds, another study from 2013 investigated links between RFP, and cognitive scores of vocabulary, maths and spelling. The findings indicated that reading for pleasure at the ages of 10 and 16 had a substantial influence on cognitive progress across the three scores. Let’s take a moment to think about that – reading for pleasure even improves maths skills.

A number of studies exploring the outcomes of reading for pleasure on the general population have also found a strong association with emotional and personal development. These reports have found that reading for pleasure enhances empathy and understanding of the self, and improves the ability to understand one’s own and others’ identities. 

The most important word in all of this is “pleasure”. People (both children and adults) only received the wider benefits of reading for pleasure if they actually enjoyed it. It genuinely had to be pleasurable. The minute we step into the realm of lessons, schemes, and forced reading lists, we begin to lose the pleasure aspect and that can ultimately alter the relationship we have with reading.

We are readers precisely because we have fond and pleasurable memories of what reading means to us. When I talk to people who are habitual readers, they all talk of the first places they read, or the first libraries they knew. They talk of warm rooms, and safe spaces. They talk of the comfort of books, and the escape of the story. Reading friends of mine who had hard or impoverished upbringings talk of the safe places that reading took them to. They talk of the school library where they found solace and pleasure beyond a stressful education system. If we want to see the next generations becoming life-long readers, they too should have places like this.

This means that libraries in all forms (public, school, academic, work…etc) offer a unique place where we can become a reader. To do that pleasurably we must always make sure that libraries are warm, safe, and full of books. Access to a wide range of material supports a free voluntary choice, and access to experienced librarians and library workers supports choice even more. Libraries may well also have all sorts of whizzy tech, and may offer many clubs and events, but they should never lose sight of their core purpose – to provide a welcoming place that nurtures reading in a pleasurable way.

Ideally a school should take the time to openly examine their relationship with reading for pleasure. The first steps are to see what sort of visual impact reading and books are having on the school environment.

  • Is reading obviously celebrated? Are there posters about books or authors around the school? Are there displayed prizes for story writing or storytelling?
  • Do the staff share their reading? Do they talk openly about things they are reading? Do they keep a book on their desks? Is there a staff reading group? Do all staff demonstrate a positive relationship with reading?
  • Are there reading spaces in the school? Is there a designated school library?  Are there comfortable places to sit and read all over the school? Is there an atmosphere that supports and engages readers?
  • Is there a focus on the pleasure aspects of reading? Is reading a free voluntary choice and not just a part of an assessment or lesson? Is reading seen as a pleasure, a lesson, or a punishment?

The wider benefits of reading for pleasure don’t necessarily show in immediate return. People might finish a book and have a life-changing new skill, or a new way of thinking, but that deeper positive societal impact is a slow-burn to a better world. That takes time, and investment in the future.

Society benefits when people have higher literacy levels, better mental health and wellbeing, and a greater sense of empathy and social responsibility. To achieve that, we should start with children having access to books, lots of books, a huge expertly curated range of books! That means all school need libraries and reading experts (aka library workers). It is never too early to put reading for pleasure into a child’s life. Surrounding them with reading material of all types, and developing an environment where reading is seen as a pleasurable pastime, is going to give them a better life.

The world is a better place thanks to reading. It might be a romantic and nostalgic notion to think of the warm and safe libraries of our childhood, and the cosy spots we found to read, and the happy times we spent with our favourite books, but there is nothing old-fashioned about reading for pleasure. It is cold hard logic to want everyone in society to benefit from the life-enhancing and empowering benefits of reading for pleasure.