Amongst lots of other good stuff about reading for pleasure, Rob's blog post paraphrases part of a conversation he had with author Frank Cottrell-Boyce:
'"We make children pay for listening to us read, or reading a great book by making them do ‘stuff’ afterwards. We need space for just giving without the need for payback."And it was this, as well as a list of 'payback' activities (see below), that challenged my thinking the most.
He later echoed this sentiment when he said, "A book given freely unlocks doors for children."'
Types of payback
A note first on the list: the first four types of payback are quite different to the second four types. The first four are more focused on practise of reading skills whereas the second four have a strong assessment focus.
- Comprehension questions based upon the text that was read;
- Finding similar themes/devices/vocabulary in other texts;
- Writing a review based upon the text;
- Writing anything based upon that which has just been read;
- Restricting a child to certain books (band) until they have read enough books sufficiently well;
- Having a test which measures how well the child has been reading;
- Reporting how well – or not well – the child has been progressing in their reading;
- Depending on their responses the child receives extra reading practice to do even if they want to or not.
To begin properly then: a look at that term 'payback'. The word 'payback' suggests that when we require children to complete 'payback' activities the reading a child has just completed was not for them in the way that a gift would be for them. It asserts that if we expect them to respond with a 'payback' activity that the activity itself is not beneficial to them, but is for the benefit of the teacher. It also assumes that if teachers give children reading without 'payback' activities that the reading is somehow more for them. But surely children need to value 'payback' activities as for them too, as part of the gift?
Correctly designed 'payback' activities (more on this later as this is key) should develop essential reading skills which, when exercised, lead to better comprehension and as a result, increased enjoyment of the text. We can only really enjoy reading when we have a good understanding of what we've read. No-one who is not at the early stage of reading finds lasting pleasure in the act of decoding. If a 'payback' activity helps a child to learn or practise a skill, then the sense of fulfilment and achievement they experience doing that can too be part of the gift we teachers give. It's at this point that my thinking may have moved away from what Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Rob Smith meant by 'payback' activities - it is probable that I am now thinking about what the alternatives are to true 'payback' activities.
During a child's time in school we have the opportunity to give them more than they be able to give themselves. Yes, we need to do all we can to enthuse them to go home and read books, giving themselves the gift of time spent reading, and we should ensure that the activities we ask them to do in school don't put them off doing this, but when they are in school we have a chance to give them skills and understanding that they might not gain or develop just in the act of independently reading.
The journey to independence is not one of independence. Children need to be scaffolded and supported to reach ever higher levels of independence. You don't become a master swimmer by being shoved in at the deep end. By giving good 'payback' activities (we'll stop using that term from now on because we're talking about something else now) we support a child on their road to mastering the act of reading by becoming independent, just like I was after reading Rob's blog post. Achieving these levels of mastery and independence is what leads to the enjoyment of reading: children who know they will struggle to understand a book will not want to read it for pleasure. And if they are made to read it without having mastered the necessary skills to understand it, they won't experience the pleasure that a child with the relevant skills will.
It then becomes our job (teachers, parents, any adult who interacts and reads with children) to help children to see the value of the activities we guide them to do in response to their reading. This recognition may come implicitly as they see for themselves that the skills we are teaching them and allowing them to practise through the response activities we provide are helping them to understand, reflect more deeply and enjoy what they have read. We may have to spell it out a little more and explain how the response activities are for them, and that being taught skills and having a chance to practise them is part of the gift we give as educators.
CLPE's Reading for Pleasure publication doesn't actually cite any type of response-less reading amongst its ten things that work when it comes to reading for pleasure (although their suggestion of a read aloud programme doesn't specifically require response). Many of the ten suggestions (numbers 5, 6, 7 and 8 specifically) suggest that some kind of response to a text leads to reading for pleasure - I assume that the responses they suggest link to and flow out of the read aloud programme they advocate.
As well as highlighting to children that response activities can be part of the gift we give, we have to ensure that what we are providing is a gift. This is where the 'correctly designed' part comes in.
A key factor to consider when designing response activities is that they improve interaction - with the text and with other readers. Response activities can be used to develop reading communities (as found in the OU research into reading for pleasure). The kinds of reading communities in the schools they studied didn't happen overnight, they developed: as adults realised there is a natural need to respond to reading they provided more opportunities to do so which eventually led to 'new and extended opportunities for interaction around texts'. We can create these communities, but only by giving children the opportunities and skills to do so - the response activities that we give should fit this criteria.
The OU findings also recognise that developing reading for pleasure in this way is complementary to other reading instruction. Without a teacher planning to develop reading communities and providing reading instruction (amongst other important factors) any time a child spends with a book runs the risk of becoming 'a routine procedure void of reader engagement and interaction'. In avoiding providing 'payback' activities we must ensure that we don't remove that which actually helps a child to receive the gift that books can give. The OU research suggests that without reading aloud and book talk in a social reading environment, time given over to just reading may not always be time well-spent. Click here to read more from the OU research on independent reading.
So, a key message is that response activities (not 'payback' activities), when focused correctly (on talk especially, which can be facilitated by the asking and answering of questions), are actually a part of the gift that we give to children. Allowing and encouraging children to value these activities, rather than seeing them as the price they have to pay for reading something is crucial to their success as readers and actually should lead them to greater engagement with, and enjoyment of, what they read. Even when response activities don't centre on talk, different forms of reading instruction (including other kinds of response activity such as the ones listed as 'payback' activities) can focus on allowing children to engage with and enjoy reading.
It's important that we don't prioritise response-less reading if we have not given children the tools they need to respond independently. Only when we have worked towards this, to paraphrase Frank Cottrell-Boyce, will a book given freely unlock doors for children. As we develop these skills with children through our instruction and the response activities we give, children will begin to read more independently in scenarios where they don't have to complete 'payback' activities - and this should be our goal. Of course, I definitely don't believe that children should never have the chance to read without having to respond in some way, but I also think that we should seize opportunities where we can to develop the skills they need to become successful and joyful readers who respond naturally just as I did when I first read Rob Smith's article.