Pathways to Academe
Reflecting on my Journey as a Reader and a Reading Researcher
As an avid childhood reader perhaps it was inevitable that I enjoyed teaching children to read in primary schools and later came to research recreational reading and the practices that support it. Reading took me places as a child—I adventured in fictional worlds, fought dragons, schemed to overthrow the powerful, fell in and out of love and in effect lived vicariously through literature. Years later, still a reader, I find myself intrigued by the connections between my personal and academic identities and interests. How do we come to find the focus of our research journeys and to what extent do our life practices and academic interests feed off one another?
These are some of the questions I want to explore in this chapter as I reflect upon my life history as a reader, as a teacher of reading and as a researcher of children’s and teachers’ identities as readers. Whilst this is of necessity a personal journey, I trust there will be connections for you. Others’ life stories can enable us to make sense of our own experiences, prompting reflection and reminiscence. I hope my narrative will connect to you, enabling you too to revisit your early passions, be they reading, sport, or music for instance, and prompting you to consider how these early interests may have shaped your later life’s work in complex and intriguing ways.
Over the years I have studied and researched far more than reading: teachers’ identities as writers also fascinate me, and the opportunities offered to young children to write creatively. In addition, creative pedagogy, storytelling, drama and play are aspects of my impassioned research enquiries. However, I recognise that when I am reading, researching, talking or writing about reading for pleasure—that volitional act of engagement with texts which offers me such satisfaction—I feel most ‘at home’ as an educator, a researcher and a human. I may even be in my ‘element’ in the words of Robinson (2015) and ‘in flow’ as Csikszentmihalyi (2000) describes those spaces where we are deeply and affectively engaged, aligned with ourselves and able to be creative.
Growing up as a reader
During my formative years I came to love reading. My earliest readerly memories are of re-reading the relatively sparse collection of books we had at home, visiting the library in Banstead to feed my appetite and swapping magazines such as Jackie and Mandy with friends at school. My mother did not really approve of such reading material, which no doubt enhanced my interest and commitment to the genre. Under cover I swapped many of these ‘illicit’ texts with friends; I delighted in them. My dad allowed us to spend our pocket money on what we chose, so I often bought a magazine on Saturday mornings at Chipstead corner shop, then on our return I’d rush to my bedroom, shut the door and devour it in private—furtively stuffing it under the bed afterwards out of mum’s sight. In particular I enjoyed the black and white photo-stories which often ended, after several weeks of tension and discord, in that longed for teenage kiss.
Years later I happened upon reprinted copies of several such magazines (offered free with the Observer) and I felt a visceral sense of joy and re-connection. For four weeks they arrived as part of the Sunday supplement, I rushed to read them like a child and found many strongly ‘affective traces’ of my past (Waller, 2019). I read and re-read the photo stories, searched for the kiss in the final frames, and delighted in the pin ups of Slade (my heart-throb Noddy Holder), and a doe eyed David Essex (or perhaps that was me!) with long hair curling over their shoulders. The visuals transported me back in time. The colour adverts for Rimmel make-up targeted at teens, such as a duo of pink eyeshadows (for just 30 old pence!) that I’d once saved for and then found was out of stock at Boots took me right back to that moment of disappointment. The flowing floral midi dresses with frills reminded me of the tartan wool skirt my mum made for me, (which I had never liked) and discos in Kingswood community hall, with us girls dancing round a lone handbag. Encountering these magazines as an adult, my reading and my past came back with an adrenaline rush of pleasure, teenage angst and a tangible sense of particular places. Needless to say I have kept these jewels of yesteryear, they represent part of my identity as a reader, are much thumbed and well protected.
My childhood pleasure in reading was also sustained by our family holidays. Each year in western Scotland my dad would go fishing with my brother, while my mother and sister would go bird watching or set off on long walks to find wild flowers. Personally, I read. Alone in the bracken (with a meat pie or sausage roll and the promise not to move until they returned), I’d go on adventures far more exciting to me than my siblings’ literal realities. Characters from Eleanor Brent Dyer, Alkan Garner, Susan Cooper, Enid Blyton, the Readers’ Digest real-life stories and many more became my constant companions. Ulapool, the nearest town, was a full hour away on a single track road and there was no library, so whilst I took new books with me each vacation, I was soon obliged to re-read the books in the little croft in which we stayed. Maybe I drew comfort from the steadfastness of the texts left there, the predictability and consistency of the cast of characters to whom I returned year after year. I enjoyed the peace and privacy of revisiting my reading journey. On our days out too, if it rained, I was often left in the car or at a bothy at my own request, happy to read, eat, relax and imagine. Place was of vital importance in these early encounters, my reading was always situated—both at home (always in my bedroom) and on holiday (always alone and often outdoors).
Context counts in our early text encounters and shapes our experience of reading, as memoirs of childhood reading often show (e.g. Mangan, 2018). Which places were of salience to you as you look back on your early reading? Can you recall even now the smell, sound and sensations of your life at the time? The people around you? The emotions attached ? These are part of our reading histories, of who we were and potentially who we became as readers.
Being a reader at school
Intriguingly, my memory of being a reader at school is not particularly strong. Were we read to? I know not. Did we have reading time? I know not. I do recall that my friends and I swapped our magazines and books and chatted about them sometimes. In secondary school I particularly enjoyed books about love during the Irish troubles, for example, Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie’s stories— Across the Barricades—a series of romantic and political fictions, set during the Irish troubles which were being played out at the time. These resonated with West Side Story and of course Romeo and Juliet . I read many tales of love and hope amidst contexts of war and strife, they filled my days with tension and hoped-for romantic resolutions, as well as political questions which my parents couldn’t fully answer. As Mackey highlights, ‘we read our own worlds into the words of our books, and these worlds will not be subtracted from the understanding we develop from the texts’ (2016, p. 263).
While close attention to the construction of literary texts and the need to memorise ‘right answers’ for exams sometimes reduced my pleasure, the rich language of Othello, Nostromo, Paradise Lost, Under Milkwood and many others remain evocative and enticing to me, even to this day. Music to be read and re-read. I fell in love with poetry at this age too, in part fed by the social and cultural practices in which our family engaged. The musicality and rhythms of church psalms and hymns, Guide songs and chants and 70’s lyrics filled my days. My mother directed a Scout and Guide Gang Show every other year and as young people we got to know these songs and tunes by heart, they added to our campfire repertoires and were cheerfully re-voiced on family holidays (by all but my long-suffering dad!). On church youth club trips—weeklong residentials to the Lake District or Snowdonia—in the presence of friends who didn’t attend the same school as me, I chose not to take books—it didn’t feel right. Instead I hid my passion for fiction and poetry, not wanting to be seen as overly learned. Retrospectively, I think I was probably trying on a ‘take it or leave it’ reader identity, to see what difference it might make.
With A levels dominating everything, and English, biology and history texts to study (‘wider reading’ wasn’t celebrated or valued in those days), my pleasure in fiction was diminished at the end of secondary schooling. The environment that had previously supported and challenged my growth as a reader was shrinking to a single focus: get the grades to get into university. No one from my family had ever attended university and I felt a desire and a pressure to break the mould, to be university material. It took time and single-minded determination; freetime fiction reading had to be placed to one side.
Did the same happen to you as you grew up as a reader? Did you experience a sense of distance from the pleasure of being a reader as your life changed and the system obliged you to prioritise academic work? Or did you remain engaged as a reader despite these pressures? Perhaps you didn’t experience reading as tempting and delightful in your early years? We are all unique readers on our own journeys with different stories to tell, but through reflecting on our life histories as readers we can learn a great deal, both about reading and ourselves.
Being a reader at university
At Bristol, I read psychology and papered my bedroom walls with the verses of Dylan Thomas, Roger McGough, Helen Steiner Rice, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Adrian Mitchell and many other poets whose voices I wanted to capture and possess, but it seemed there was even less time there for fiction, for other worlds, others’ lives, loves and magic. Even on holidays I don’t recall choosing to read for relaxation. The habit had gone, dusted down perhaps as a passing childhood passion. Looking back, whilst I think I did see myself as a reader then, I framed myself as a serious undergraduate reader of psychology, social anthropology, child development and memory, not as a free reader venturing into imagined worlds. In our flat no-one bought or discussed fiction—we were variously studying politics, psychology, biochemistry and geology and focused on getting good grades (alongside the usual social life and long nights discussing the world). I cannot recall a single conversation about reading novels. Maybe we implicitly viewed such reading as childish, Richard and Judy book clubs had not been conceived and perhaps less profile was given to recreational reading.
Did your peer group also shape your reading practices, as they did mine, not only as a young child but later too? No doubt I shaped my flatmates’ reading lives as well, there was no network for us to tap into as fiction readers, nor did we create one. Although now, years later, the five of us do occasionally chat about novels, swap titles and give books for each other’s birthdays.
Learning about reading as a teacher
After university I did a PGCE in Cambridge to become a teacher. There I was reintroduced to pleasures of fiction, read children’s texts very widely, and learnt about their complexity. Children’s texts are not some watered-down version of adult literature, but like all literary texts, have the potential to create aesthetic experiences that enhance our understanding of the human condition. As Bruner (1990) has shown, we use narrative to make sense of experience and to represent and reflect on our broader social world. In my training, I encountered reader response theories which view reading as an active meaning-making process between reader(s) and text(s). As I studied reading for the first time, I began to realise that texts are not fixed, but develop their potentiality through the reader’s engagement with them (Rosenblatt,1978/,1994; Iser, 1978) .
In school as an ingenue teacher, I remember trying to help children engage with reading and find themselves in the mirrors of fiction (Bishop, 1990). I read aloud to my classes, shared my newly unquenchable thirst for fiction (and poetry) and tried to help create legacies of past satisfaction for the young. However, some simply didn’t want to know, they were already deeply disinterested due to past experiences—even as 7-8 year olds. They eschewed any sense of a reader identity, and labelled those who read as ‘boring’ and ‘geeks’. They had not yet found what reading was good for. Although I worked to get to know these readers, and used my repertoire of children’s texts to make recommendations, I feel sure I didn’t make positive reader identity positions available to all. Then, the concept of reader identities was unknown to me, I was unaware I was framing the readers in my class. I did however try to offer stories that opened doors and windows to others’ worlds, in order for children to develop empathy and awareness of the plight of others, perhaps as I had done through the Irish troubles Kevin and Sadie stories years before. I also shared my own passion for reading with children.
I recall finding Bridge to Terabithia, a children’s novel by Katherine Patterson, very moving, and was crying when Darren, a boy from my class, encountered me on the pavement outside school at lunchtime. The death in the text resonated with the loss of my closest girlfriend some months before; I was overwrought and propping myself up on a post, unable to move. “It’s alright miss’ Darren reassured me, “books get you like that sometimes don’t they?- like they’re real you know—but they’re not” . I can still see his face at that moment in my mind’s eye, decades later.
If reading is anything, it is surely thinking about meaning, and when we connect the texts we read to the stories of our lives (and vice versa) we bring our memories, experiences, prior knowledge and understanding to bear on whatever we are reading. As Rosenblatt observed:
The special meaning… the submerged associations that these words and images have for the individual reader will largely determine what the work communicates to him. The reader brings to the work personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood of the moment and a particular physical condition… in a never to be duplicated combination (Rosenblatt,1978/1995, p. 30-31).
It is the transaction between readers and texts and these notions of the reader’s life, past and present and the ‘physical condition’ and ‘particular mood of the moment’ that in large part shape and influence our affective engagement in reading. I feel sure you can recall occasions when you experienced an almost visceral bodily response to a text, and /or a personal and emotional connection that enabled you to re-read your life through the narrative? The black and white marks on the page resonate with the meanings we bring and those we co-create with the author as we read, and that applies to this chapter you are reading, as well as works of fiction.
Researching reading for pleasure
I found the research around reading so intriguing that when I moved to the university sector, I began to explore the role of Reading Teachers, teachers who read and readers who teach (Commeyras et al., 2003). I wanted to understand if positioning oneself more personally as a reader, and teaching from a reader’s point of view, might make a difference to children’s desire, motivation, and behaviour as readers. My reading journey was beginning to shape the questions I wanted to answer as a new researcher and teacher educator.
So, working with UK Literacy Association colleagues we piloted a Teachers as Readers survey of teachers’ reading practices and their knowledge and use of children’s texts. 1200 teachers from 11 Local Authorities completed it and we were shocked by the results. The data revealed that whilst these teachers were readers in their adult lives, when it came to school they relied on a limited canon of books from their childhood and celebrity children’s authors. Dahl dependency was worryingly rife (Cremin et al., 2008a, b). Incredibly, 22% could not name a single poet and 24% could not name a single picture fiction creator. These findings, which received considerable media and policy interest, created cause for concern, how could teachers possibly foster reader development without such subject knowledge.
So in my next project Teachers as Readers Phase II we foregrounded teachers’ experience of texts and their pleasure in them, and prompted teachers not only to read more widely, but also to reflect upon their practices and preferences as readers. We also examined the potential dynamic between teachers and children as readers. Amongst myriad insights, the project revealed that volitional reading is strongly influenced by relationships: between teachers; teachers and children; children and families; and children, teachers, families and communities, and that a reading for pleasure agenda can be developed effectively through the creation of classroom reading communities of reciprocity and interaction (Cremin et al., 2014). Such communities, the research indicated, are most effectively led by Reading Teachers who recognise the significance of reader identity in reader development and frame their practice in responsive ways.
Was I researching my own practice as a teacher from years before, only this time through a more informed socio-cultural lens? Perhaps so, although I don’t think I fully appreciated that at the time. Through case studies, we found that those practitioners who developed most fully as Reading Teachers appeared to make the most impact upon the children’s attitudes and attainment.
Since then, I have worked on a number of reading research projects. I sought to understand the role librarians play in extracurricular reading groups, (Cremin and Swann, 2016, 2017) and the ways digital library systems position teachers as monitors and curators of children’s reading, not as co-readers or mentors (Kucirkova and Cremin, 2017). More recently, working alongside other OU colleagues, we examined the disengagement of young boy readers. Soberingly, this revealed that teachers’ perceptions of children’s gender, class and ethnicity shape their practice, significantly constraining the boys’ engagement as readers (Hempel Jorgensen, Cremin, Harris and Chamberlain, 2018).
In each of these studies, our research questions, though tailored to the project in question, linked in some way to the children and adults reader identities.More recently I’ve developed a practitioner community website to share some of this research, which has hundreds of examples of teachers’ evidence informed practice, developed as a consequence of their engagement with OU/ UKLA Teacher Reading Groups. These inspiring examples, in line with the research, demonstrate that when practitioners read more widely, get to know the children as readers, develop their reading for pleasure pedagogy, and a Reading Teacher stance, they are enabled to build strong communities of engaged readers. These communities have positive consequences for young readers. (See: https://researchrichpedagogies.org/research/reading-for-pleasure.)
Each study and the website have helped me understand more of the complex relationships, identity enactments and interplay between adult and child and child-child readers. In effect, my early pleasure in reading and renewed passion has been examined through this work. The lines between being a reader and researching reading have become blurred. Perhaps this has happened in your life story too? Have your personal practices and intense enthusiasm for something influenced your own scholarly enquiries?
The impact work has raised new questions for me as a researcher too. Teachers in the Reading Groups have shown energy and commitment, but they have found it hard to track the progression and development of children’s affective engagement, attitudes and behaviours as readers. So I am working with teachers to understand how to document the subtle nature of readers’ identity shifts. We cannot measure their pleasure, but researchers, working in collaboration with the profession, can surely find ways forward.
Looking back, I can see there are intriguing connections between my own childhood passion for reading and my later research enquiries. Fuelled in part by life experience and personal interest, I have come to study an aspect of my own life—my reading identity—and to explore the possibility that our identities as literate adults have salience for those we work with in classrooms. In building reader relationships and sharing their reading identities, Reading Teachers appear to hold up a mirror to their own practices as readers and in the process learn more about what real readers do. They then consider the pedagogical consequence of this new understanding and act to enable young readers to exert their rights as readers. This, my research indicates, impacts on their pleasure.
Writing this chapter has also prompted me to consider if my reading research has fed my personal reading practices. It is certainly the case that I remain an avid reader, I always have an adult and a children’s book on the go, spend far too much money on books, and have been a member of a book group for over 20 years. In that context, whilst I can never turn my researcher’s mind completely off, I try to participate as an adult reader and friend, not an academic. The group though is undoubtedly a micro community of readers, and attending provokes my thinking, raising new questions about the nature of reading.
Whilst I swapped Jackie and Mandy comics with my friends many years ago and hid them from mum, the emotional pleasure I experienced reading them, the connections I made to my life and the lives of the characters within them—real and fictional—helped shape me as a reader. At the time of reading and sharing them with friends I was unaware of the place these texts would play on my life journey, but I can see now that the social, affective and relational nature of this small weekly reading practice helped sustain us, both as readers and as friends.
Such retrospective insights about the highly social, situated and contextual nature of reading have been evidenced in much of my empirical research in classrooms, although it has taken the writing of this chapter to fully recognise this. It is now clearer to me that the social environment, our literacy histories, others’ perceptions of us as readers and our interactions around reading, influence our attitudes to and understanding of what it might mean to be a reader in particular contexts. As this chapter documents, my sense of identity as a reader waxed and waned, burgeoned and bloomed at different times over the decades depending on my relationships and work contexts. As educators and researchers, we need to pay more attention to this complexity and enable policy makers to acknowledge this too. Readers’ identities matter.
I wonder if my writing has caused you too to recollect your own reading history and identity and consider not dissimilar issues? Perhaps in encountering my journey as a child reader to a reading researcher, you have begun to look back on your life story, to consider the passions and pleasures which shaped your life journey—whether that be an enthusiasm for music, sport, reading, or a concern with injustice or equality for instance. Can we really leave our childhood selves, our early passions and practices behind? I am not sure, though perhaps some people deliberately do so, eschewing the narratives of the past in order to shape alternative futures which allow new interests to blossom. Our life stories are not unlike the narratives found in fiction—rich, diverse and intriguing and there are always new stories waiting to be told.
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