FLOW and reading for pleasure

Reading is a creative activity as a number of researchers have pointed out. Holden, in Creative Reading (2004) makes the case that reading is not the passive activity it is often seen as, but a creative one that is a vital element of a wider creative process. Harrison in Understanding Reading Development (2004) makes equally fundamental claims about the importance of reading, suggesting that it defines how we think and imagine and thus underpins our development as emotional and moral beings.

So, when reading The Book Whisperer (Donalyn Miller, 2009), in which Miller writes with great enthusiasm about the importance of teachers being able to make appropriate reading recommendations if they are going to engage all learners in reading for pleasure, I was reminded of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of FLOW. When in this state of full immersion, absorption and engagement in an activity, participants lose track of time. I have also had my interest in FLOW revived recently by reading Griffith and Burns book Engaging Learners which contains many ideas for teaching activities that maximise challenge and require high levels of learning attitudes and skills – the pre-requisites for creating FLOW in the classroom.

It seems to me that reading, at its most pleasurable, achieves the characteristics of FLOW but also that many learners have never experienced this state and are therefore largely unaware of the pleasures that reading can bring. With this in mind, I searched around to see whether anyone had conducted any research into links between reading and FLOW and discovered just one paper had been written, in 1996, by Mcquillian and Conde, which can be accessed here,at a price.. Their conclusion was that certain factors need to be met for a reader to have an optimum reading experience. The four factors they identified are:
The text should relate to a topic of which the reader has some knowledge;
The text should relate to a topic that the reader wants to know more about;
The text should relate to a topic in which the reader is interested and
The text should relate to something which the reader would like to achieve.

I’m sure we can see how this list might make sense in relation to non-fiction. If we want to mend a lawn mower, have some technical ability and interest in mechanics then a lawn mower maintenance book may well be engaging. If these conditions are not all met though, it is unlikely that the reader will find the text fully absorbing.

With fiction the situation seems more complex. The topics that learners want to know more about are often carefully hidden from teachers. But Miller makes the case very persuasively for knowing your learners really well so that you can guide them towards a book, perhaps the only book, that at that precise moment in their educational and emotional development, will thoroughly absorb them. With this in mind, I developed the Rooted in Reading guide to choosing a book you will enjoy. This simple sheet (see below) tries to capture information about readers’ interests so that precise, accurate reading recommendations can be made. If the right learner can be linked up with the right book at the right time then FLOW may ensue, with all the attendant benefits that reading for pleasure brings. Miller is so positive about her personalised approach that she claims that no learner in her Texas classroom has ever failed to read the 40 books in a year that she demands.

As well as enabling teachers to target their recommendations, the sheet will also enable other learners to contribute their own ideas on books that individuals may well enjoy and this too can be very powerful. However, nothing can replace a knowledgeable and well-read teacher/librarian. Before recommendations can be made the teacher/librarian has to have first hand experience of a wide range of high quality books – those of you who have ever heard the brilliant Marilyn Brockhurst of Norfolk Children’s Book Centre speak about books will know exactly what I mean. Indeed it was exactly this concept that encouraged me to work with Bishop Grosseteste University to create the Teacher’s Reading Passport, which you can read about in previous posts.

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