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The Fundamentals of Readaxation

The Fundamentals of Readaxation. Illustration by Katherine Lynas.I coined the word readaxation several years ago and many schools, organisations and individuals taken it to their hearts. I’ve had schools create readaxation zones and even a readaxation spa! But what is it, what’s the point and is it any different from reading for pleasure?

What is readaxation?

It means “reading to relax” but there is more to it than that. It’s very similar to the idea of reading for pleasure but in my view reading for pleasure isn’t enough and risks being a bit woolly. Readaxation goes further and makes more claims.

My full definition: “Readaxation is the act of reading for pleasure as a deliberate strategy for relaxing stress levels. It acknowledges that relaxation is not a luxury but an essential part of physical and mental wellbeing and health. Readaxation crucially includes the act of achieving ‘flow’ or ‘engagement’, which has positive consequences for reducing stress levels and improving wellbeing.”

(“Flow” and “engagement” describe that sense of being so engrossed in an activity that you don’t notice what’s going on around you. You are transported into (in this case) the act of reading and the world you are reading about. Many experts believe that having sufficient periods of engagement in your day/week/life is very important to wellbeing. So do I.)

I will try to answer these questions:

  • What are or what are likely to be the benefits of pleasure reading to wellbeing?
  • Why might it reduce stress?
  • Does it make a difference what we read?
  • How can we make it happen?

What are or what are likely to be the benefits to wellbeing?

In my resources section you’ll find links to research. Note that I’m very careful to analyse any research properly – some of it is stronger than others – but that since the Reading Agency Literature review of 2015, we are now much surer about the evidence for these benefits.

Here are some benefits, specifically expressed here in terms that might appeal to young people:

  • Helps you get to sleep
  • Helps you understand other people better
  • Helps you face and understand difficult times
  • Helps you know more about the world – including facts
  • Improves imagination/creativity
  • Exercises lots of areas of the brain
  • Helps you succeed better at school
  • Increases vocabulary
  • Improves confidence and self-esteem
  • Lets you switch off from worries
  • You feel less stressed

Why might it reduce stress?

  • Readers believe it does and therefore there’s likely to be, at the very least, a psychological, placebo-based effect
  • It’s an activity that allows “flow” (see above)
  • When you are fully engaged in a book, you can’t simultaneously be worrying about whatever stress you’re under so, for that time at least, you are switched off and not repeating your negative thoughts – there’s a CBT effect there
  • Bibliotherapy – this concept has a long history and a great deal of research to support it, both for clinical and developmental bibliotherapy
  • It’s autonomous
  • It shuts out requests for activity and response, focusing rather than splitting one’s thoughts, allowing uni-tasking and avoiding multi-tasking
  • It offers permission to be alone

Does it matter what you read?

No, but yes.

The central tenet of readaxation is that it has to induce pleasure so it must be any book you want to read because you will enjoy it, not for any other reason. So, in that sense, it doesn’t otherwise matter what it is and every type of reading is as valuable as any other type, as long as it’s a book you can become fully engaged with, achieving “flow”.

But, leaving aside the readaxation aspect, every choice we make makes a difference to us. Different types of reading engage slightly different areas of the brain and if we spend a lot of time on one particular type of reading we will make physical changes to our brain, inevitably. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (in fact, it might sometimes be good, depending) but it is worth knowing about.

When I do INSET and keynotes about the effects of reading, I go into this in some detail, discussing evidence for differences between the following choices:

  • Simple and complex texts
  • Digital and print – looking separately at digital online and digital ebooks
  • Fiction and non-fiction

In the context of readaxation, the only relevant differences are in the extent to which we can fully engage with a particular text but I find it impossible not to look at other differences, too! Especially the digital/print and fic/non-fic ones. Fascinating! (I’m not going into the details here as it’s only tangentially relating to readaxation. Remember, readaxation is about achieving engagement and different readers can do that with different texts: for example, I personally can’t engage with the text on an ebook-reader but some people can. The research consistently shows slight average deficits in comprehension and recall when readers read digitally. See the resources section of my website for much more on this. Or ask me to come and speak to your staff.)

How can we make it happen?

So, if we agree that readaxation has a potential benefit to wellbeing, how can we make it happen?

In my talks, I focus on Victor Nell‘s motivational flowchart. According to this, we need three antecedents in order for someone to try reading for pleasure:

  • Adequate reading skills – “adequate” meaning “adequate for the book choices being offered” (in other words, a 6yo can have adequate reading skills for reading a book for that age group)
  • Correct book choice – “correct” simply meaning “a book this person could love”
  • Expectation of benefit

And it’s that third one that we’re too often ignoring. We’re expecting people to read for pleasure because we say reading for pleasure is A Good Thing. This is where the phrase “reading for pleasure” falls down and isn’t strong enough. There are two reasons it’s unhelpful:

  1. “Pleasure” has negative connotations – “guilty pleasure”. We tend to think pleasure is self-indulgence, that we should only have it at weekends or holidays, that we have to “deserve” it and that if we’re busy (as we all think we ought to be, especially Type A people such as me) we can’t afford pleasure.
  2. Calling something A Good Thing doesn’t work as a motivational tool for most people, especially young people. It treats reading like spinach, something we should have because it’s good for us.

We know it’s good for us but what most of us (especially young people and individuals who don’t already think they love reading) need to know is that it will make us feel good. Most people need to know what the immediate benefits might be and then they need to experience those benefits. Then they will read more.

Crucially, different people will be drawn to different benefits. (This is where my earlier list comes in.) Some children love the idea that if they read they will know things; others love the idea that they will understand their friends better and have better friendships; or that they will feel more confident; others love the idea that reading will help them relax and switch off from their worries.

So, they need first to know what the benefits might be and then to experience them. (You’ll find a list in my resources.) And this is facilitated by discussion. “Which of these benefits might you like and then which of them did you notice?” School librarians have huge power in this discussion. They also have huge power in the second part of Nell’s requirements: the correct choice.

In fact, it is usually ONLY SCHOOL LIBRARIANS who can do this. And this is where I get very ranty. If we want children to love reading enough to do it in their own time, we CANNOT underfund school librarians. We CANNOT create a nation of readers if we do not have a properly trained librarian in every secondary school. ONLY school librarians are greedy enough in their reading and knowledgeable enough in their understanding of both keen readers and reluctant readers to be able to offer the “correct choice” of books. ONLY libraries free at the point of use can provide the necessary deluge of books to feed the emerging reader and allow unguilty pleasure reading.

Without properly funded school libraries with properly funded school librarians, reading for pleasure and readaxation become truly luxuries: accessible only by the fortunate.
Relaxation is not a luxury: it’s essential for health. And readaxation is a perfect way towards that relaxation.
Mind you, it comes with a warning:

And that’s a risk you should want to take!

Remember, this is an area I’ve been expert in for many years and I have spoken about it to audiences all around the world. Do take a look at my Speaking area, if you’d be interested in asking me to talk to your audience.

Together, we can give reading for pleasure the leadership role that it should have in creating independent, open-minded, questioning and confident citizens who have a wonderful tool for their own wellbeing.

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