David Bennett shares a few thoughts about reluctant readers
Hardly a Parents' Evening goes by without an anxious Mum or Dad leaning towards me and saying something along those lines familiar to all teachers: `... Of course, he never reads any books. Can you suggest anything we can do?'
Firstly, notice the HE who never reads any books. It isn't true that all reluctant readers are male but perhaps it's almost true. Secondly, do these children really not read anything? When I delve a little further it's usually the case that the child doesn't pick up what the parent thinks is real reading, which can be generalised as a fiction book, preferably with few pictures, that the adults remember from their youth. (If you torture your mind with recent Nat. Curric. booklists, you'll get the picture.)
In reality the same reluctant reader is often poring over mountain bike magazines, computer and motorcycle manuals, fishing part-works and non-fiction, etc. If you've ever looked at these, you'll know many of them make significant language demands and they undoubtedly require reading stickability. Alternatively the youngsters are reading such materials as comics, which, like the magazines, are at least keeping them open to print. A cynic might say that in the sub-basement level they're only reading the labels on their designer clothes, since that's what concerns them most, but if we look on the bright side at least their brains are getting access to some print.
The important thing, and it's what I try to tell anxious parents, is that this is where their child is at, at this moment and it's the base from which we adults must work if we wish to effect any sort of change.
A word here about the oft-repeated claim that too much TV and too much leisure has rung the knell on teenagers' reading habits. Is it maybe that the youngsters are not reading books but television is showing them sports or activities that are actually stimulating the reading of plenty of magazine material? Furthermore, I can think of plenty of programmes that have spawned books which the most reluctant and unlikely characters have read and enjoyed. Grange Hill and Tales of the Unexpected are cases in point.
F Whitehead in Children and Their Books (Macmillan, 1977) estimated that 15.8% of children are non-readers at the age of 10+ and this has risen to 40% at 14+. These children are not unable to read... their ability would enable them to read interesting books if they so wished. What they lack, unlike our reading dynamos, is motivation. In my estimation, that's the principal factor to examine and the major players are Home, The Library, Peers and The School.
If I probe a bit further with the anxious parents, it's not unusual to find they aren't actually setting any example because they don't read much, either. So that which they are recommending to their children as important is not so very important that the adults are ever seen settling down with a `good book'. If adults don't count magazines and newspapers as proper reading for children, then presumably they don't count for adults. A reading environment in the home where the use and discussion of books is as common an activity as arguing about who does the washing-up or who fed the rabbit last is bound to contribute to the making of readers.
Public libraries and school librarians are labouring under enormous pressures and I wouldn't wish to undervalue the great efforts being made to attract young readers. The trouble is that many youngsters never set foot over the doorstep; library visiting is about as hip as admitting that you ever watched Blue Peter. Obviously, we must seek ways to make libraries even more pro-active in the community and even more vital in community life. Youngsters I talk to often mention they're overwhelmed and intimidated by the sheer volume of choice in a library. They don't know where to begin. Since choosing the book to read is part of the process of reading and comes right at the start, perhaps that's something libraries could look into yet further. The same youngsters place great value on books vouched for by others in their own age group. Indeed, it can't be bad that it's book titles that are being traded here on a par with the hottest film in town or where to get the best value takeaway. Exercise caution though. A girl once asked me for the same book as her friend, who said it was good. The title was elusive for the moment but it was definitely an animal book. I was steering us both towards non-fiction when the title came to my companion... it was Planet of the Apes!
Children don't enter school planning to be reluctant readers or book haters. Something happens to them along the way. Is it that some of them get the idea that books are only for retrieving facts and information - enjoyment as such doesn't come into it? Does contact with fiction too often equal an exercise at the end with entertainment squeezed out and tasks ladled in? Are the adults in their schools like those at home? They say reading is good for you and ever so pleasurable, yet you never see them doing much of it themselves and they can seem very latched on to what they call `quality reading', when there's still a million and six `Sweet Valley High' titles to be read.
Quality reading is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. For me it's the material which sets out to stretch the imagination. It makes a huge contribution to the development and mastery of language. Discovery of self, of feelings, emotions and behaviour and reactions to situations is inherent in its pages. It challenges and shapes views and opinions, extends experience and permits a safe spectator role where problems can be solved without the painfulness of reality.
Put like that, it's pretty potent stuff. No wonder some youngsters can't take it wholesale without generous helpings of the non-quality material as well. Which of we so-called mature readers don't at times heed the call of something utterly trashy and undemanding (and enjoyable!) as a break from `good books'?
At our chalk faces we have to believe every child is entitled to a glimpse of the pleasure that can be gained from reading. This demands teachers who are aware of the materials available - a pretty tall order, so keep your subsriptions to BfK going! It must be supported by a positive and generous reading environment and, most important of all, it must allow pupils time to read and discuss books.
By my reckoning, to accomplish at least some of this, almost anything in print that's legal is permissible. So, on the basis of `if you see a good idea, steal it', here are a few tactics I've picked up and used in my time. I don't claim they've all been sure-fire hits, but you never know until you try. The essential tactic to aim for is varietyand there's plenty of that here:
The Book Area or Resources Area
Go for the user-friendly approach. Make this area a community focal point, from which red noses, play tickets or whatever are sold. It must be attractive and comfortable. Displays and exhibitions should be colourful and inviting incorporating the pupils' own ideas, work and materials. If books can be displayed with the cover facing outwards so much the better. Gaining access to materials should be easy and choosing facilitated by plenty of book information, quick-read subject indexes or colour coding. In this respect I never cluttered subject indexes with more Dewey numbers than were absolutely necessary to encourage browsing and I `spotted' the fiction spines with pink for short stories, yellow for SF etc. Good library induction is important but we should never kid ourselves that it'll all stick at once.
If the spirit is to start from where the pupils are, then I'd expect paperbacks to outnumber hardbacks, since the former have much more street cred. Quality fiction will rub shoulders with non-quality and picture books will be well represented. Stock will range from that intended for below the audience age-range to that written for the group above. A good selection of magazines and comics is advised, but we can be forgiven for thinking the pupils often buy these themselves - in which case encourage them to bring in back numbers. Academic stock is necessary but to attract certain customers leisure stock is needed as well as maps, atlases, timetables and telephone directories. It's financially risky but the `now thing' for our pupils is cassettes and videos. A selection of book-related specimens does pull in the punters but personally I'd make a point of never releasing either without the accompanying text.
I have this notion that for some reluctant readers one of the turn-offs is that they never seem to finish anything. For this reason I always get to know as much as I can about short story collections and poetry collections. You can read a few pages of these and actually complete a piece with no unfinished business.
Series and sets can be compulsive once you get across the hurdle of the first book. I'm never too thrilled with `Series for reading recovery' programmes. I can't shift the feeling that the very best way of bringing pupils and books together has to be on a one-to-one, individual basis. But I'm open to persuasion and if series do the I job all well and good.
This is about flooding the pupils' school day with reading and books and making it all seem perfectly normal. Book swaps and taster sessions are fairly easy to organise. Reading weeks, book events and author visits take a bit more orchestration. Focus weeks to tie in with national events like the Olympics or the British Music Awards need a bit of advance planning and a regular bookshop needs a dedicated organiser. But staff needn't do it all. The whole point is to involve pupils and their families, to talk to them and see what they want. Pupils should be given the chance to put up their own displays - 'Hobbies with related books' and `Class Z's favourite library books' were two good ones that spring to mind.
Children are ace at thinking up competitions and puzzles, whilst their annotated booklists and reviews are usually seen as more reliable than ours. Keep them within bounds, though. A booklist with 50 titles is a turn-off for anyone. Five at most seems about right to me.
In a classroom/library liaison, we've developed what can best be described as the DFE Award of the book world. Bearing in mind the requirements of the Nat. Curric., we've developed a reading programme that leads through bronze to platinum. Each of the four stages has tasks to complete, viz. for silver, pupils must read:
- - at least one short story collection
- - a collection of story poems (or a long story poem)
- - a SF or fantasy book
- - a book on animals or sport
- - two storybooks and two non-fiction books, on two of which a review is required, on another a quiz or puzzle is expected and on the last a class talk for 2 minutes
So far the response from a majority of pupils has been very positive. Obviously each school would have to adjust its requirements to the needs and standards of its pupils.
Good luck. Keep trying and hang on in there - even if it's only by the seat of your designer pants!
David Bennett is a regular BfK reviewer as well as being a senior teacher responsible for English and Modern Languages at George Spencer School in Nottinghamshire.