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Give children books – and the time to read them

Give children books – and the time to read them

My latest blog focused on ‘Making Mathematics fun’; this blog focuses on ‘Bringing English alive’. There are so many excellent activities that take place in the Junior and Senior Schools and Sixth Form including Creative Writing clubs and our Cambridge-wide Creative Writing competition, debating club and student Magnolian editors. The aspect which particularly struck me was the emphasis placed by our teachers on the importance of reading.

In our ‘digital age’ there is an ongoing debate about whether we are seeing the ‘death of print’ in terms of printed news and the printed book. Last week, Kevin Stannard of the GDST (Girls’ Day School Trust) wrote an interesting piece for the TES:  'Will e-reading spell extinction for the bulky, perishable, non-interactive reading books'. He argues that although we are all spending much more time looking at a screen, much of this time is still spent using and developing literacy skills. In contrast to a passive activity like watching the television, much of our time spent online revolves around researching information, writing blogs, communicating with others or using e-readers to read books. The practice of reading is still commonplace although the form that it takes looks very different.  

Research indicates that there is a positive correlation between children who spend time reading for enjoyment and improvement in their academic attainment. There is an interesting talk by Professor Stephen Krashen which provides an explanation of what counts as ‘reading for enjoyment’ and the kind of positive impact this can have. He explains:

“Free voluntary reading is the source of our reading ability, of our vocabulary, of our ability to handle complex grammatical structures, most of our ability to spell well, and our ability to write with good writing style. Much of our knowledge of the world comes from reading”. Even without formal English lessons in school, reading in general provides all of these benefits.

Professor Krashen’s recipe for success is for a child to have access to enjoyable books, the time to read them and a lack of distraction. They don’t need to be tasked with completing book reports or answering questions at the end of a chapter to make the most of the experience, and neither do they need to be incentivised or rewarded for reading. An enjoyable story is a pleasant pastime and hence is its own intrinsic reward, ergo teachers and parents should simply provide more books and not rewards afterwards. If children read out of a motivated interest they will and should have the capacity to put down a book that is not enjoyable and scoop up an alternative that is! Reading never needs to be anything other than a pleasant experience!

Junior School parents who attended the information evening about reading aloud last week will also have heard about the benefits of parents reading with children from birth. Mrs Sarah Cliff, Junior School English Co-ordinator, explained that not only is reading together a special time for children to spend with their parents, but that “reading aloud is the best advertisement because it works. It allows a child to sample the delights of reading and conditions them to believe that reading is a pleasant experience not a painful or boring one”. Broad and committed personal reading from a young age will support success in developing sophisticated vocabulary and verbal articulacy which is important and can be achieved with good foundations and access to worthwhile texts and periodicals but which cannot be assumed for the Instagram generation.

In Key Stage 3 English lessons, students start each lesson with 10 minutes of reading from a book of their choice. They also have one English lesson each fortnight in the Learning Resources Centre (LRC) in which they can change their books, browse for inspiration, and write up notes about the books they have read. The department chooses class texts with great care and aims to provide a springboard for what will be set at GCSE level, but also to engender curiosity about author, genre and context, which will enhance personal reading choices.

Our librarian Mrs Diana Larman is in the LRC from soon after 7.30am to help students with their studies but also to simply 'chat books' informally with individuals and small groups. She has a devoted band of librarians and student volunteers who also enjoy working in the library and are drawn to come because they too love reading. Supporting the girls to enjoy reading in these years prepares them for the demands of English at GCSE level, which have never been greater and require a broad range of skills and a sophisticated level of language acquisition in order to achieve grades from the mid-level upwards. We are extremely fortunate to have such dedicated members of staff who encourage “Reading, reading, reading!”. Mrs Larman has concerns that

“declining literacy is the greatest threat to academic and personal expression in the future”

and so she spends a substantial amount of time renewing and upgrading the fiction at all levels in our LRC. She also arranges visits from popular authors to the school so that students can be inspired to consider new genres and to learn about the writing experience ‘from the horse’s mouth’. Students’ suggestions/requests for books are welcomed and current popular favourites, award winners and short listed books are all purchased for the LRC. At present two genres are displayed. Historical fiction of the Tudor period was chosen following consultation with the History department and is much enjoyed by Year 8 and Sixth Form students who are studying the Tudors. A second display comprises novels from writers from other cultures who write in English; it is especially important since the curriculum was changed so that all texts not written by English authors were banned from the set text list – greatly impoverishing the range on offer! The quality of teen fiction is variable, and yet Mrs Larman often remarks on how pleasing it is to see our girls discriminating and often choosing classics and books published some time ago – interestingly, the most frequently borrowed book is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

The challenges of getting children to read will vary from child to child and school to school. If children don’t have ready access to a range of enjoyable literature, because they don’t have access to books at home and lovingly-stocked bedroom book-cases or a vibrant school library or local libraries, they will not have the opportunity to learn to love reading and will have little incentive to create ‘ring fenced’ time to read.

So, as teachers and parents, friends and family members of young people, the best thing we can do for our children’s education is to show them how passionate we are about reading for pleasure – and to provide them with books and time to read them! Happy half term reading!