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Not every kid likes reading. We all know this – and yet we cling to a belief that if we can only find the right book, the right approach, we can turn this child into a person who reads for pleasure.
The trouble is that ‘reading for pleasure’ has become a target in itself: something to be measured and ‘achieved’. And therein lies the contradiction. If a child loves to read and re-read The Guinness Book of Records but nothing else, are they failing at ‘reading for pleasure’? Of course not! Reading for pleasure is something outside the curriculum, not to be rated on some kind of chart. And yet, that is precisely what schools are expected to do.
I used to teach English to secondary students. Before that I was a Learning Support Assistant in a big London comprehensive. I firmly believe in the benefits of reading for pleasure – but I think it’s important to remember that everyone’s pleasure is different. And where pupils are concerned, there are so many other factors to consider: parental support, cultural issues, academic pressure… We can’t win them all.
But here are some simple things that teachers can do to encourage everyone in their class to engage with books, even the reluctant readers.
I don’t think I’ve yet met a person of any age who doesn’t like being read to. Spoken words travel like music to the core of us. Before we were writers, we were storytellers. Keep reading to your pupils, and that includes the older ones. When I was teaching Of Mice and Men, I would ‘read around the class’ asking students to read aloud, but every so often, I would take a turn and read several pages fluently, with ‘voices’ if I could. Even GCSE students love to hear a text brought to life by someone who knows how language works.
Once a week, find an interesting paragraph from a book available in your school library. Print it out, along with a thumbnail of the book cover at the bottom, laminate it and stick it to your classroom door. Add ‘Available in your library now!’ Everyone who walks past it will see it – several times a day. Maybe someone will be intrigued enough to go to the library and borrow the book.
Stories are very important for our development of empathy and understanding of the human world. But fiction is only one part of the incredible range of books available for children and young people. Kids love facts, for example. Keep a fact book – or more than one – on a shelf in the classroom, that anyone can look at. Fact books are brilliant for reluctant readers because you don’t have to start at the beginning, and the text is broken up into snippets. While you’re waiting for pupils to get out books, or just before you take the register, open the book at random and read out a fact. Who wouldn’t be fascinated to know that Antarctica was once home to giant 6’7” penguins?! (And who doesn’t love Radio 2’s Factoids?)
When I was teaching, parents used to come up to me and say in dismay, ‘I can’t get my 14-year-old to stop reading Jacqueline Wilson. What do you suggest?’ I found this baffling. Why would anyone want to stop their child reading something they love? Reading down is like comfort food – and for children under immense academic pressure, it can provide much-needed emotional nourishment. Of course it’s good to keep offering a range of options as regards books and authors – but if we’re serious about reading for ‘pleasure’ we have to accept that that doesn’t usually mean ‘challenging’.
Let kids give up. By this I mean let them know it’s OK not to finish a book. Somehow, many of us have this ingrained conviction that books must be read right to the end. But why? There are over 10,000 books published for children and young adults every year in the UK. That’s a lot of books to delve into. Here’s a good strategy: If you’ve got a pupil who hates books, make a deal with them. Ask them to pick a book and to read five pages. If they don’t like it, they can stop right there and try something else. If they’ve picked a Minecraft book, it doesn’t matter. Reading for pleasure isn’t about your pleasure, it’s about theirs.
Nothing kills enjoyment of a book faster than being asked to write a review! If you want kids to read for pleasure, you have to let them take that reading into themselves. It becomes personal and precious. Resist asking them what they liked best about it. It’s enough to know they enjoyed it. The best question to ask is, ‘What are you going to try next?’
If you’re lucky enough to have one, that is. Librarians are endangered but their knowledge is second to none. Be aware of your pupils’ likes and dislikes and what’s happening in their lives. The chances are, your librarian could recommend several possible books that might appeal. They’ll almost certainly have a ‘Quick Reads’ section, featuring short accessible books with teen content but primary reading levels, such as those published by Barrington Stoke, Bloomsbury Education or Ransom Publishing. And don’t forget graphic novels – even though the story is told through visuals, there’s still plenty to read.
Finally – don’t give up. Not only do all kids develop at different speeds, they’re all dealing with different stuff in their personal lives too. A kid who won’t read this week might be open to it next week, or next month, or next year – or never. But you lose nothing by trying. And you might just give them a great gift.
Jo Cotterill was an actor and a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. Her new series, Hopewell High, is published by Bloomsbury Education.
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