Thursday, June 1, 2017

Reading for Pleasure - Are some schools and teachers putting kids off books for life? A ReadItTorial

This week's ReadItTorial (and, apologies, it's a bit of a long one) was inspired by something that made me want to throw things at my monitor, when I stumbled across it on Twitter.

One of the nicest book folk out there, author Robin Stevens, was talking about something that had occurred in a school. A girl was discouraged from reading Robin's books by a teacher who claimed that they weren't advanced enough - and that she shouldn't waste her time on them.

Understandably Robin was pretty upset by this and rallied the troops on Twitter to talk about the subject of reading for pleasure, and why it seems many schools and teachers are either being forced to apply reading as a measure of academic excellence or, in some cases, truly have the belief that young readers don't need added distractions away from fairly dry stuff that they're given as set texts in school.

It made me think back to the early days of Charlotte's reading journey, when she would come home almost in tears at the thought of having to work her way through yet another tedious early reader title (for example the Biff, Chip and Kipper books - which she almost universally hated, even though compared to some of the things I was given to read at the same age / ability, they really weren't that awful - just achingly dull).

Obviously by the time she was being given stuff like that around the age of 5 she'd already started to read picture books on her own.

Phonics was just something they did in school, and was done as a measure of progression - almost a box-ticking exercise because her appreciation of language and storytelling had already been built up over a number of years, partially by us reading to her every night without fail (and not just once a day either, as many times a day as she wanted) and partially by her own discovery of her own reading tastes but overall very much a free hand on what she would borrow from the library or buy.

I'm not trying to sound like a smug parent here. Both my wife and I work full time, and our free time with Charlotte quite often equates to a couple of hours a day - into which we have to squeeze meals, homework time (and there's always tons and tons of homework - hateful for kids her age), play (hah - that really is a joke, what kid these days even has time to play), a bath or shower, bedtime story and whatever else we can cram in.

We're obviously in a very fortunate position to see a lot of books and have been since she was tiny. It goes without saying that the blog has helped Charlotte develop into someone who will, completely unprompted, go off and read for pleasure if she's got an idle moment - but even before the blog got into its stride, the local Library was our saviour and meant that Charlotte had ready access to armloads of books (again, something we're fortunate to have - many towns and cities are not so fortunate but that's a blog for another time).

Charlotte often reads over breakfast, lunch and dinner (if we let her) We still read to her every night and she'll follow up those sessions by reading chapter books on her own too. Without a doubt she loves books, and reading is not just a 'school thing'.

Robin's observations also seemed to indicate that certain books were seen as 'trash' whereas other books were seen as appropriate for a child's age, reading ability and level of academic achievement.

It makes no sense at all to me for anyone (teacher, parent or otherwise) to think along those lines. Forcing a child to read 'the classics' for example, as a measure of their ability, just seems completely bizarre when quite often those books are dated, and virtually indecipherable when you consider how much language has progressed, and how some of the books that always end up as set texts are completely and utterly irrelevant - and have been for several generations.

It's almost as if there's some insidious plot to keep these bloody things in circulation, like worn out crumpled old fivers, purely through some messed-up misplaced sense of nostalgia that they were great when some hoary old Education Minister was a kid, so kids today had better blimmin' well love them too or else!

(Sorry, calm down dear, it's only a ReadItTorial...)

Choice is the key word. Imagine early readers being taken into a library (again imagine that schools all had libraries in the first place, and all local boroughs and towns / cities etc too), and imagine those children being able to choose what they start out with (most parents who read this blog won't have to imagine, because I'll wager that's exactly what they have done with their own children outside of school anyway).

As great as they are, the "Biff, Chip and Kipper" books nearly put Charlotte off reading for pleasure for life.
Now imagine those children working their way up through picture books, with full involvement from their teacher and their parents, imagine them asking what certain words mean - imagine them having the book read to them, maybe choosing the next book in the series, and then having a go themselves with full support.

Imagine those kids taking their first faltering steps into solo reading - maybe playing it safe at first with stuff they know, but maybe one day picking up a book in the library or in school that is outside their comfort zone - just because they think it might be FUN to try something different.

Imagine those kids growing up, moving on to chapter books for the first time and finding an even more diverse and amazing world of longer stories to dip into.

Imagine never being told that what you're reading is wrong for you, too young for you, too old for you, not challenging enough for you.

Imagine how you would feel as a kid if you were given that amount of freedom right from the get-go and were not forced into reading in a way that feels completely artificial, or in some cases more like punishment than reward. That has to be the best way to encourage children to read for pleasure, and read not through a sense that they're 'doing better than anyone else in their class' but that they're genuinely enjoying stories and language that can truly take them places they'd never imagined.


Alex Walsh said...

It works the other way too- we were taken aside by a teacher who had already spoken to the headmistress and told that Chris Priestley's Tales of Terror from the Black Ship ( was unsuitable for our Sophie (8) and we shouldn't let her i) read it or ii) bring it in to school as it might scare other kids.

I find this soooo depressing; as a precocious reader myself in my youth, I abandoned the kids library for the adult one at 9 when I bought some Dragonlance (Dragons of Autumn Twilight), and a love for fantasy that was only matched by an obsession with horror began. By the start of secondary school, in 1986 I was reading Stephen King, Graham Masterton, Dean Koontz etc. Kids love being scared!!

ReadItDaddy said...

Yep that's definitely a subject for another ReadItTorial and one we've covered many times before (but there's still tons to debate there). I think the problem is that reading purely as a marker for academic excellence will only be there to establish a baseline, not to actually prove anything about a child's reading ability or as a predictor for their future interests. In the same way no art teacher should be telling a kid that they're 'drawing something wrong', no teacher or academic should be telling a child that books are only suitable for certain levels of reading.

When it comes to darker stuff I can sort of half see where the teacher was coming from - and the whole 'age ratings for books' thing is an impossible puzzle to solve. Though I think if she's 8 and she's reading stuff like that, all power to her (C was also brought up reading a real mix of the usual children's books but showed a real liking for books that were slightly dark in tone - I still rate "The Bear Under the Stairs" as a surprisingly dark book for younger readers though not all will see it that way).

Cheers for commenting. Feels like this one has had a few nods of agreement from folk, which makes me happy.