How educational technology can transform reading for pleasure

Reading for pleasure has many benefits to a child’s education, but how has educational technology transformed how we approach it?

Reading development consultant and former Deputy Headteacher and Director of English, Ian Turner, discusses.

Why reading for pleasure is so important.

Teachers know that reading for pleasure can significantly impact a child’s education in terms of their performance in reading tests and their general well-being, vocabulary development, appreciation of other cultures, and knowledge.

The implications of COVID-19 on reading for pleasure Reading Plus image showing a child holding a tablet computer

The pandemic's wide-ranging impact on reading for pleasure is no surprise to anyone in the education sector.

In 2020, the National Literacy Trust reported:

• Children and young people’s levels of reading enjoyment continued to decline and were at their lowest since 2005.

• Children and young people’s daily reading levels were at the lowest ever recorded, with just 25.8% of children saying they read daily in their free time in 2019.

In 2021, the National Literacy Trust reported:

• 1 in 2 (51.5%) children and young people said they enjoyed reading. This is slightly lower than the percentage recorded during the first spring lockdown in 2020 (55.9%) but higher than levels at the beginning of 2020.

• 2 in 5 (44.6%) children and young people agreed that reading made them feel better.

• ‘Reading to relax’ was one of the main reasons why children and young people were reading in early 2021, with 1 in 2 (52.7%) saying this, followed by ‘educational aspects’, namely helping to learn about new things (51.4%) and learning new words (49.8%).

It is encouraging to see children and young people’s attitudes towards reading for enjoyment improve after the numerous Covid-related national lockdowns.

Reflecting on the impact of the pandemic

Rather than a blight on the future of a generation of children, the pandemic has led teachers and leaders to adapt and find alternative ways to inspire, engage, and accurately assess their pupils' progress.

The coronavirus outbreak highlighted the vital importance of technology for learning and as a tool to encourage reading for pleasure. As schools closed and physical books could no longer be swapped and taken home, many schools looked towards technology as a solution.

Educational technology as a solution

Access to texts to read online through programmes such as Reading Plus was a lifeline for schools and children during extended periods of home learning. Some of these programmes were developed in response to the pandemic, while others were already embedded as part of schools’ reading curriculum offer. And while some are designed purely to provide access to online texts, those that explicitly model best practices for reading development have enabled children to progress their reading skills, despite the closure of schools.

Schools have been urged to seek technological solutions to teaching, learning and assessment. This ensures a smooth transition between year groups and key stages so children can continue developing age-appropriate skills.

Thanks to teaching ingenuity and technology, the vulnerable and the most disadvantaged now have more opportunities.

In addition, some children have perhaps read more during home-schooling than the traditional route. And while many children may not have a physical book in their house, being given hardware and software by their school has given them access to hundreds of online texts that are age-appropriate, ability levelled, and that provide direct and explicit instruction to improve their vocabulary, comprehension and fluency.

Technology does not replace a book, the same way it does not replace teaching, but it can unlock the skills children need to read with metacognition.

The impact of reading for pleasure

A child who does not enjoy reading is less likely to read. A child who doesn’t read is less likely to develop reading efficiency, will not be exposed to a wide range of vocabulary, and is less likely to develop strong comprehension skills.

These pupils are more likely to find reading difficult, lose their confidence in their reading ability, become further disengaged with reading, and lose confidence in their reading ability.

How then do you teach a child to enjoy reading? To do that, you need to remove the obstacles that prevent reading from being a pleasurable experience.

The obstacle of inefficient readers with low fluency

To encourage reading for pleasure, we need to develop reading competence. Understanding why inefficient readers are so is a good place to start.

Inefficient readers expend energy and attention simply trying to read the text, diverting attention from the critical step of information processing and understanding. As a result, inefficient readers may struggle with both comprehension and motivation to read – reading is slow and laborious, and their reading level is well below age-related expectations. Slow readers also read less and take in less information, which further sets them back. As with any activity, the more pupils read, the better they are at it. By making the act of reading more fluent, working memory is freed up to take in the meaning of the text.

Weaker readers need well-structured, adaptive, and personalised reading interventions.

The importance of automaticity in reading for pleasure

One factor that distinguishes more successful readers from their less able peers is automaticity.

That is, the ability to navigate lines of text, decode common words, and construct meaning from text without having to devote a great deal of conscious effort or attention to the process of reading.

Automaticity develops from reading practice and the development of efficient, silent reading habits. With practice, word decoding speed increases, sight vocabulary expands, and word recognition becomes increasingly automatic.

At some point, given sufficient exposure to appropriately levelled texts, an adequate percentage of words in a text will be sight words. According to prevailing theories, cognitive resources formerly required for word decoding can be redirected toward processes that support comprehension.

How reading technologies can instil a lifelong love of reading

The motivation to read and continue to read comes from curiosity about the text, knowing what you are successful at and the associated sense of achievement – and knowing what to do to be even more successful. Where parental engagement does not support this, and when the practical logistics of providing one-to-one support to all pupils to develop their reading efficiency is not possible, technology can provide a solution.

Adaptive reading technologies support ongoing learning

The provision of electronic texts that are suitably challenging, age-appropriate and of interest to children is a crucial consideration for schools.

Schools should consider an adaptive, personalised reading programme such as Reading Plus. Reading Plus is an online reading programme which improves comprehension, vocabulary, and motivation by providing individualised scaffolds to build fluency.

When pupils need support, the Reading Plus programme automatically adapts to the needs of each learner, providing scaffolds as and when necessary. For the teacher, formative assessment provides actionable reports and resources and teacher-directed instruction in specific comprehension skills and strategies. Through its design, pupils may move seamlessly between home, school, or a blended approach.

Identifying the best educational technology

The best educational technology follows the same format as the best teaching: explicit instruction, scaffolding, cognitive and metacognitive strategies, and adaptability to the pupils’ needs. Well-researched technology is ahead of the curve and had anticipated the needs of our changing world –well before the pandemic.

Digital teaching solutions do not replace high-quality teaching, but employing the same pedagogical strategies, can complement it, support it, and offer children further opportunities to practice and develop their reading curiosity and confidence outside of the classroom.

Case study: How Sunnyside Spencer Academy looked towards EdTech solutions to transform reading

Sunnyside Spencer Academy in Nottingham was looking for a reading programme to develop independence and improve fluency as pupils often did not complete the final text in the Key Stage 2 SATs reading papers.

The school purchased the online reading programme Reading Plus after a successful free pilot.

What is Reading Plus?

Reading Plus is an adaptive reading improvement programme designed to develop vocabulary, comprehension, and reading fluency. Suitable for Key Stages 2-3, the programme can be used for both whole-school reading development and targeted intervention.

Impact on learning in the classroom   

At Sunnyside, budget restraints meant pupils didn't have access to a wealth of books. However, through Reading Plus, pupils can access over 1,000 different texts (fiction, non-fiction, informational) and can guide their selections. Reading Plus is accessible on iPads and tablets, meaning children can access texts from home.

Reading Plus presents pupils with texts of between 500-2,500 words and then tests their deeper understanding with ten questions after each selection. Scores are immediately feedback to the pupil. Each lesson is completed in 15 minutes. This immediacy in seeing their results, the engaging nature of the text, the choice and control over text selections, and the scaffolding for struggling readers all lead to pupils experiencing success and wanting to read.

Sunnyside Academy commented that pupils are curious to discover more after Reading Plus lessons and ask to go on the programme outside of timetabled sessions. They have developed a love of reading, which has fostered a school culture of reading for pleasure.

Pupil Riley said: "I love Reading Plus because I wouldn't have enjoyed reading as much as I do now without it. I love learning the facts from the books. I learnt there are more moths than butterflies."

Informing strategies

Reading Plus supplies easy-to-access data-driven reports, supporting planning for leaders and managers.

Data from Reading Plus is used to inform strategies and interventions at Sunnyside Academy. During weekly phase meetings, leaders discuss data and hold other teachers accountable. The data clarifies which pupils need support and which need a challenge.

Transforming teacher workload

Teachers appreciated that Reading Plus's formative and summative assessments were precise and well-matched to external assessments.

Time is saved in assessing, planning, identifying where pupils need support, measuring progress, and providing specific intervention. One teacher at Sunnyside commented that listening to 1:1 readers each day could be challenging, but Reading Plus provided the data that demonstrates progress.

Return on investment

In 2019, Sunnyside's reading results for Year 6 were Expected Standard 63% and Greater Depth Standard 13%. After using the programme, their recent SATs results increased to 86% EXS and 41% GDS.

Their Y5 class have shown the most progress. Prior to using Reading Plus, only 19% of the class were reading at their correct reading age. After one year of use, 70% of the class are now reading at their reading age.

Used as specified, in one-year, pupils make an average of 2.6 level comprehension years in gains on Reading Plus. At Sunnyside, 71% of pupils made 2.6 or more gains, two gained 6.6, and one progressed by 7. The average reading speed of pupils has increased by 42% to 200 words per minute (wpm) (the national average for Y5 is 175wpm).

Assistant Headteacher Verity Lee, Sunnyside Spencer Academy, said:

"Due to working in a disadvantaged area, pupils lack a varied understanding of vocabulary, impacting their comprehension. We wanted a programme that allowed pupils to build various experiences through texts, such as learning about "Amazing Moths" or reading a classic story. The pupils also needed to develop skimming, scanning and re-reading texts to search for evidence. Reading Plus was the solution to these challenges.

"Our school motto is to make every moment count. Reading Plus allows us to do this by having small intervention groups while other pupils can independently access the programme.

"What I like most is that it motivates our boys to read more. They are competitive, and they want to see their scores. I like that pupils choose which texts to read and enjoy talking about them with their teachers and peers.

"It is a fabulous platform as it can run on all devices, meaning pupils can access Reading Plus at home. I couldn't imagine not having access to Reading Plus."

Authored by Ian Turner.

Ian Turner trained initially as an English teacher to pass on his love of reading and writing. After a successful career as Head of English, Director of English, and Deputy Head of a Middle School, Ian works as a reading development consultant at Reading Solutions UK to help children develop into lifelong readers.

For more information on Reading Plus, or to see first-hand the results your school can achieve, try a free four-week pilot, with no obligation to purchase, by contacting 0191 389 6078, info@readingsolutionsuk.com or www.readingsolutionsuk.com