Leading a Reading for Pleasure School

28 September, 2023
Sonia Thompson, Headteacher of St Matthew's CofE Primary School, BirminghamSt Matthew’s CofE Primary School in Birmingham was the first school to win the OU/UKLA Whole School Reading for Pleasure Award in 2018 (now the Farshore Reading for Pleasure Teacher Awards). The award recognises a school’s commitment to embedding a reading for pleasure ethos and celebrates the innovative and creative ways that teachers have found to motivate and enthuse young readers.

As the Deputy Head and now Headteacher at St Matthew’s, Sonia Thompson has played a pivotal role in building and sustaining that reading for pleasure culture. In the first of two blogs for Literacy Hive, Sonia talks about her own reading for pleasure journey and what it means to lead a reading school.

A Pedagogy for Reading for Pleasure

I started on my reading for pleasure journey when I was working as an English consultant for Birmingham Local Authority. Birmingham was one of five LAs that took part in the Open University’s original Teachers as Readers: Building Communities of Readers research project in 2007-2008 (TaRs). This was a year-long action-research project that followed on from the OU’s earlier research that explored teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature (2006-2007).

Led by one of the TaRs project leaders, I worked with a group of about 10 teachers from local schools, exploring the latest research and helping them to broaden their knowledge of children’s books. The aim was to see what impact that would have, not just on teachers’ own understanding of the reading process and their pupils’ engagement with reading, but also on reading attainment (1).

St-Matthews-Reading-Corner-Leading-a-Reading-School-BlogThe TaRs project was very innovative at the time. Before I started, I had never really considered that there might be distinct ideas that could inform teachers’ understanding about how best to enable children to read with agency. As an English consultant, I was supporting schools to teach children how to read but I don’t think I had ever spoken to any school about reading for pleasure. Until the TaRs project, I just don’t think that, as practitioners, we were aware that there was a reading for pleasure pedagogy.

Backed by Research

I’m very much about evidence-informed practice so having the opportunity to be part of the TaRs research project was hugely important for me. Once you have read the considerable body of evidence around the benefits of children reading for pleasure, it just doesn’t make sense that, as schools, we are not focusing on it. When I went back into school and started as the Deputy Head at St Matthew’s in 2012, I knew I wanted to use my Senior Leadership role to put all the knowledge that I had gained from the project into practice and drive a reading for pleasure agenda forward.

Reading for Pleasure is a Social Justice Issue

St Matthew’s is located in an area of high disadvantage – it is in the 3rd most deprived neighbourhood of Birmingham and the 5th most deprived area in the UK. It is not an area where children particularly have books in their homes. There is a body of research that shows the negative impact that this can have on children’s engagement with reading, their learning and future life chances. At St Matthew’s, we have positioned reading for pleasure at the very heart of the school, as an issue of social justice and a key tool for school improvement, because children who read do well across the curriculum, that’s what the research tells us.

That clarity of vision has been central to bringing everybody on board, particularly governors, who are willing to invest in reading for pleasure because they understand the opportunities that it opens up for our children and the positive outcomes that will result.


Raising the Status of Reading for Pleasure: Empowering Staff

I think sometimes people forget that reading for pleasure is specifically mentioned in the National Curriculum. In the Revised Reading Framework document published in July this year, reading for pleasure features even more prominently. As practitioners, it is part of our statutory duty to enable our pupils to read for pleasure and we need to approach this with the same energy and vigour that goes into teaching them how to read.

As a school leader, you have to set the weather around reading for pleasure and make it clear that reading for pleasure is important in your school. Part of that is talking about it on a regular basis to keep it at the forefront of teachers’ minds, but you also have to ensure that teachers have the professional knowledge they need and that they feel confident about what they are doing. At St Matthew’s, we very deliberately trained teachers on the reading for pleasure pedagogies, working through them as part of our professional development programme, and we revisit these on a regular basis 2.

Raising the Status of Reading for Pleasure: Having a Plan

It is not enough to want to be a school where reading for pleasure is at the heart of the curriculum – you have to plan for it. Like every other curriculum area, reading for pleasure has got to have its own action plan. Good implementation means that you spend time thinking about what it is you want to change and are able to say what success will look like – I think that’s really important. If you want to become a reading school, you need to define what that means for your setting. It can’t be vague; it can’t be fluffy; and it can’t just be about creating reading spaces. Anybody can do that. But, if nobody is using your reading space, there’s not much point to it. This is about raising the status of reading for pleasure so that it is seen to be as important as maths, as important as phonics. It’s about changing hearts and minds so that teachers understand that it’s worth spending time on because everyone recognises the importance of being a reader – the advocacy and efficacy it gives us as adults – and everyone agrees that that’s what we want for our children.

Well stocked library shelves in a reading for pleasure primary school.Raising the Status of Reading for Pleasure: Funding

Raising the status of reading for pleasure also means ensuring you have a budget for it. Reading for pleasure appears as a line on my SIP every year, to the point that the governors ask me, ‘Sonia do you never achieve this one?’ And I say ‘no’, because reading for pleasure is an ongoing thing; you can never tick the box and say you’ve ‘done’ reading for pleasure. A key part of helping children to engage with reading is providing them with the opportunity to find and choose books they want to read, and we have to have a budget that enables that to happen – whether it’s money to buy the latest title in a popular series, develop a new graphic novel section in the library, or renew the subscriptions for the magazines and comics that the children so enjoy.  As the Head, you have to take the lead and make this part of the conversation with governors. If you want things to happen, you have to advocate for them. Reading for pleasure is part of the curriculum and, just like any other curriculum area, we need a budget for it – it has to be funded.

Part of Your School’s DNA

Leading a reading school is about making reading for pleasure part of your school’s DNA. At St Matthew’s we do reading for pleasure, everyone needs to know that. Any new teachers that come, anyone who visits, they need to know that reading for pleasure is our culture, that it’s part of who we are.

Of course there will be pushbacks and obstacles to overcome, but you have to be steadfast in your mission. It all comes back to the evidence and what it tells us about the benefits of reading for pleasure. It’s about keeping those social justice issues at the forefront of your mind. We want all children to have access to good books and the opportunity to develop that agency as a reader. And that shouldn’t be left to chance – we can’t leave it to chance. Reading for pleasure has got to be part of what we do within our school cultures.


(1) The results of the project were subsequently published in the first TaRs book – Building Communities of Engaged Readers: Reading for Pleasure (Routledge, 2014)

(2) For schools looking to start their own reading for pleasure journey, the OU Reading for Pleasure website is a great resource. It provides summaries of the key findings from the research alongside examples of practice from schools around the country. Schools can also apply to be part of a one-year Reading Schools CPD Programme, or there is a free online course that teachers can follow in their own time.

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