What I'm Reading—Jeff Wilhelm

 //  Nov 9, 2016

What I'm Reading—Jeff Wilhelm

Jeffrey Wilhelm's book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want and Why We Should Let Them (co-authored with Michael W. Smith) has been awarded the 2016 NCTE David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in English Education. In the spirit of Reading Unbound, we asked him to share what he has been reading lately.

On the doors and teachers' desks at the school where I work, teachers post what they are reading. At the moment, on my door, I’ve posted the following: 

I love this. We are all proclaiming that we adults are readers, and that we are a community of readers. We advertise that we read all kinds of different texts and for a variety of different reasons. We invite students to ask about our reading and to tell us about their reading. Often students ask to borrow material from me when I’m done reading. We are creating a culture of reading and sharing the pleasures of reading.

When I was the age of my current 7th grade students, over 45 years ago now (gulp!), my list would have looked like this (I know because I’ve kept a reading diary since 4th grade!):

Back then, I probably would have said that I did all my reading for fun. 

Now, based on my recent research into the power of pleasure reading in Reading Unbound, I know how to identify the various kinds of pleasure that I enjoyed, and I know why each pleasure is important and what specific benefits accompany each pleasure, and I know as a teacher how to promote all of these pleasures in my classroom. 

Pleasure reading as a civil right

My research (with Michael Smith) into the power of pleasure reading has convinced me that pleasure reading is a civil right. Why? There is robust evidence that pleasure reading in youth is the single most explanatory factor of social mobility, educational attainment, cognitive progress over time, and life satisfaction.

Pleasure reading has been found to be more significant a factor in access to equity factors than parent’s SES or education.  (See for example, Guthrie’s analysis of OECD/PISA data, 2004, and the recent analysis of the British cohort study, 2013). What follows is that if we care about social justice, if we care about the current and future experience of our learners, but especially those who are in any way marginalized or struggling, then we must promote pleasure reading with great urgency.  

But here is the rub

What makes reading pleasurable? What motivates students to read and to cultivate the continuing impulse to read over time and into adulthood?  Our research identified five distinct pleasures enjoyed by readers who freely chose or freely chose to continue reading a text. These pleasures were present throughout the informants’ reading, and explain their commitment to reading, how to induct less engaged students into the pleasures of reading, and why each pleasure promotes capacities that lead to the benefits reported in the research. The pleasures are necessary to engagement and participation in reading, and participation is necessary to develop proficiencies and capacities. The pleasures are key! And we know that 91% of children ages 6–17 say “my favorite books are the ones that I have picked out myself.”

The five pleasures and how to promote them

  1. Immersive play pleasure. This is the first and prerequisite pleasure and is typically what we tend to think of as pleasure. This is reading (or doing anything else) for the pure love of it (and is not loving and being loved a basic civil right, too?). But this pleasure quickly becomes enmeshed with other pleasures. How can we foster this pleasure of play – making it visible and available to those who may not experience it? One way is to use drama/action strategies: Dramatic techniques like revolving role play, in-role writing, good angel/bad angel, hot seating, and alter ego encourage and reward all students for entering and living through story worlds, becoming characters/relating to characters in the ways committed pleasure readers do. 

  2. Intellectual pleasure. This is the joy of figuring out a problem or puzzle, e.g. figuring out what a text means, or how it was structured for meaning and effect. We foster intellectual pleasure when we frame curriculum as a problem to solve by using inquiry and essential questions, when we teach students how to generate their own questions and use discussion structures that promote understanding of how texts work and make it clear that students are not playing “guess what the teacher already knows." (Check out Engaging Readers & Writers With Inquiry and Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements.)

  3. Social pleasure. This has several dimensions: the love of relating to characters, to authors, to other readers, affiliating with groups, and staking one’s identity. Erik Erikson has taught us that the primary task of early to late adolescence is to stake one’s identity, which one does through relationships, and through evolving interests and competence. To the degree that school encourages these social dimensions of reading, it assists with the human developmental journey; to the degree that classrooms fail to encourage the social, we undermine it. How we can foster social pleasure: some ways include being a fellow reader with students, to foster peer discussion and sharing through literature circles and book clubs, promoting books through booktalks and reviews, and doing group projects based on reading and research.

  4. Work pleasure. This is about the love of getting something functional done from reading, including being able to talk and argue, as well as apply what has been learned in the world. Promoting work pleasure: using inquiry that works toward culminating projects, service and social action. Mantle of the expert dramas focused on problem-framing and solution. (Check out Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom: Being the Book and Being the Change.)

  5. Inner work pleasure. This finding was our most striking and moving. Our informants loved using their reading to rehearse becoming the kind of person they wanted to become, and unearthing deeper layers of consciousness and awareness. As Helen expressed, “[I]t’s not really learning about yourself, it’s learning about what you could be . . . ." Inner work is the love of transcendence, of connecting to something greater and outgrowing one’s current self. Promoting inner work pleasure includes inquiry for service to self, peers, the classroom, school, community or environment; drama as characters in dilemmas or agents (good angel) helping a character, or as authors making choices; personal writing for the future/ to a future self. 


Do we want to cultivate lifelong readers, and for our students to gain the benefits and access to civil rights that come from this? Of course we do. Cultivating all five pleasures is necessary to promote lifelong reading. They are already central to our engaged reading.  We must make them all central to our teaching.

Do you have favorite titles or activities that give you and your students the pleasures of play, work, intellect, inner work or the social?  Share them with me on Twitter @ReadDRjwilhelm or on Facebook

Photo by Jasmine Wilhelm