At Books for Keeps we could not be more aware of the expertise of our readership (you are mostly teachers, librarians and parents) in putting the right book with the right child and of finding ways to inspire in them a love of reading. This is then, the first of a new series of articles in which YOU have the opportunity to share your experiences of that special book that switched a ‘reluctant’ reader you have worked with on to reading.
The Reluctant Reader (Primary)
Gwynneth Bailey, Language Coordinator at Aldborough County Primary School, Norwich, on how Tell me Something Happy Before I Go to Sleep clicked for Dottie…
What is reluctance? Reluctant readers often can perform the mechanics of reading, but opt not to do so, even at a very young age. They do not usually have specific learning problems. Computer games and TVs in bedrooms tempt children away from reading, from practising a skill that, once learnt, may shape their lives. The role of caring adults is critical, to nurture a love of reading, to confirm a reason for making that effort reading demands.
Between ages 5 and 7, Dottie was a reluctant reader. She loved listening to stories, being enthusiastically responsive orally and on paper to involved texts. Her memory for story content was excellent. She was read to at home, and used the home/school reading record. It was frustrating that she made no progress towards independence. Determinedly, she invented text, reading pictures quite accurately, using context clues, but only using the words to ‘frame’ her telling. Her reading became slow, mechanical, without pleasure when independence and accuracy were demanded.
Then one day I read to the class Joyce Dunbar’s picture book, Tell me Something Happy Before I Go to Sleep. Dottie was enchanted, and coyly asked to take the book home. Next morning, and for several after, she went straight to the book corner, and started to read the text, smiles wreathing her face. I listened and rejoiced. Our termly book sale was due, and having ensured a copy would be available, I watched as Dottie persuaded her mother to buy it for her. Within days, she was tackling a variety of texts with confidence and glee. This book had given Dottie the motivation to learn to read for herself. We try so desperately to teach children to read, but in the final analysis, they themselves have to be motivated to learn to read.
We need to continue the search for a ‘right fit’ for reluctant readers. Format is often the key, (distinctive rhythm, predictable rhyme/text, repetition, bold illustrations, obvious picture clues, humour.) We can help children build up stamina by sharing the reading, especially with 7+ readers. Given stories galore, shared one to one with a patient, enthusiastic adult, hopefully their reluctance will be overcome.
Another tip! Invest in an Author! I have found that author visits are such positive encouragement for reading in school. Many authors are performers, the keen competition in publishing obliging them to travel the country promoting their books. Do prepare well, reading the class some of his/her books, providing a range of their work in school, and planning relevant cross-curricular work. The visit will then provide a wonderful springboard for future reading, drawing in reluctant readers and enthusing whole Key Stages to taste more of the splendid literature currently available. Children catch enthusiasm, magnificently so when it is spread between peers.
Gwynneth Bailey’s top favourite picture books for the inspiration/motivation of ‘reluctant’ readers:
Tell me Something Happy Before I Go to Sleep, Joyce Dunbar, ill. Debi Gliori, Picture Corgi, 0 552 54506 6, £4.99
Each Peach Pear Plum, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Puffin, 0 14 050919 4, £4.99
Here Come the Aliens!, Colin McNaughton, Walker, 0 7445 4394 0, £5.99
Winnie the Witch and other titles in this series, Valerie Thomas, ill. Korky Paul, Oxford, 0 19 272197 6, £4.99
My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes, Eve Sutton, ill. Lynley Dodd, Puffin, 0 14 050242 4, £4.99
Cockatoos, Quentin Blake, Red Fox, 0 09 996490 2, £4.99
The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson, ill. Axel Scheffler, Macmillan, 0 333 71093 2, £4.99
The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark, Jill Tomlinson, ill. Paul Howard, Egmont, 0 7497 4178 3, £9.99 hbk
Non-threatening wordless books
Clown, Quentin Blake, Red Fox, 0 09 949361 6, £4.99
The Snowman, Raymond Briggs, Puffin, 0 14 050350 1, £4.99
The Small Miracle, Peter Collington, Red Fox, 0 09 968071 8, £4.99
The Reluctant Reader (Secondary)
David Bennett, Senior Teacher and Head of the English Faculty at George Spencer School, Nottinghamshire, on how Billy the Kid clicked for Paul…
Paul was in my class in year 8, escaped me in year 9 and after a level 6 in SATs, came back into my custody in year 10. He’s anxious to do well and conscientious with all written work, but obsessively aware of the technical errors, mostly phonetic spellings, that blight his work. He goes for the neat presentation and spell-checker element of word-processing whenever possible, but of course this is denied him in exams.
He’s always been fidgety during read aloud sessions and viewed quiet reading like a punishment from on high. His mother has shown anxiety about Paul’s failure to read for pleasure and regularly sought advice. She virtually monopolised our annual evening session for parents on encouraging private reading.
Paul claims that he’s never, ever enjoyed a book and never found one that interests him. They are quite plainly boring, every one, and he can not get started on a book because all beginnings are a drag and don’t motivate him to find out more.
We had a bit of a breakthrough with the Douglas Adams books or dipping into comic poetry in year 8 but my triumph was short lived. We tried the non-fiction/magazine option, with limited success. At least it provided a reading strategy for in-class sessions. However, this was infrequently followed through at home.
Paul said it was eighteen months since he last completed a book voluntarily but he’d have a go at one I’d just reviewed (BfK 126) and wanted him to try. When he returned my copy he beamed with satisfaction, telling me how surprised he was at how much he had enjoyed it, especially the sad ending.
He admits that, although he read it in small doses (total reading time was about an hour and a half), there was a point when he didn’t want to put Billy the Kid down. He liked the way that it reads like non-fiction, like a very eventful true story. He commented on the fact that the story was about an adult, and not a bunch of kids. Some of the events in the book, like the Holocaust, he’d just been studying in Humanities and it was a pleasant surprise to find that in a story he was just reading.
The sport element helped Paul to engage with the tale, which has the redeeming virtue of being quite short. I’d anticipated some quibble about the near picture-book aspect of the production, but Paul liked the pictures, feeling that they added to the writing. As for the text, that didn’t talk down to Paul, which he fully appreciated.
Now it’s a case of ‘follow that!’ Michael Foreman’s own award winners about the war, War Game and War Boy, are obvious choices. I hope this kind of novella length picture book format with an appeal to older readers will surface more and more for lads like Paul, who then told me he didn’t think to inform his poor mother that Mr Bennett had actually got him to read a whole book!
Billy the Kid by Michael Morpurgo, with illustrations by Michael Foreman, is published by Pavilion, 1 86205 361 8, £12.99 hbk.
Readers who would like to contribute to this series are invited to submit an account of their experience (500 words) to the Editor. Please mark your submission ‘Reluctant Readers’.