‘This morning, I looked at the books on my shelves and thought that they have no knowledge of my existence. They come to life because I open them and turn their pages, and yet they don’t know that I am their reader.’ Gabriel Zaid
I’ve made my thoughts clear on my belief that having controlled periods of silent reading is the only way to encourage a love of reading in the children I teach. Read some of my earlier posts. However, I don’t want to create the impression that the ten minute session I allow for reading silently is isolated and unconnected to the rest of their work in English. Indeed, it is a core part, but only a part.
One of the most fulfilling things I do as an English teacher, one of things I look forward to most is reading great writing aloud. Not always great novels, but I have to admit it is this which pleases me most. If you’ve never read to a large group of kids – and I’m clearly not including English teachers in that – then it is an experience which you need to share. The intimacy of the moment, the electricity of the dramatic scene, is unique in my job. When you can recreate the tension of a great piece of writing – through hushed tones, genuine anger, subtle nuance – then you can hold a class in the palm of your hand.
There are scenes in some of the books I teach which still leave a tingle down my spine. Holden Caulfield’s explanation of his desire to be ‘The Catcher in the Rye’; Macduff’s reaction on hearing the news of the murder of his family in ‘Macbeth’; the gripping finale to ‘Of Mice and Men’; the final, beautiful, poetic last section of ‘The Great Gatsby’. Every one of them leaves me gulping back a tear and I’ve yet to read any of them to a class who haven’t been wrapped up in every word. The room is silent. The words sink in. The bell signals the end of the period. Let them go.
‘Every story read to students from any genre contributes to building their background knowledge in some way.’ (Steven Layne, Igniting a Passion for Reading)
And that knowledge is very often better left alone when the book is finished, for a time anyway. Not stopping a book and asking what we thought of it, or ‘why did that happen?’; or ‘what does it really mean?’ is the most effective way to get children to think their own thoughts. Leave it alone for a while. Let it settle. Then talk. No worksheets, no comprehension quizzes, no wasting time.
If we are to create lifelong readers then it is important that we don’t cast them adrift with meaningless, time-consuming nonsense. Yes, we look at great writing and analyse and discuss. But we need to ask ourselves what we want most of all at the end of the process. Readers who can access difficult texts or readers who do access difficult texts. Unless we promote reading as something to be enjoyed in and out of school, something which they will take with them for the rest of their lives, then we are in danger of creating a generation of alliterate children. ‘We can read but reading wasn’t enjoyable at school so we choose not to.’
When I read out loud to kids I am reminded why I wanted to do this in the first place. Memories of my English teacher reading the chapter from ‘Lord of the Flies’ where Piggy meets his inevitable doom. I went out and bought the book that weekend. I may still have it all these years later. Even so, I can still hear his voice slightly cracking as he read the words, probably for the umpteenth time, to a class of previously rowdy teenagers. That stuff never goes away.
In class, we’ve just finished reading ‘The Outsiders’ by S. E. Hinton. The kids in this group have read more with me than they’ve ever read. I gave them the time to do it and I talked about books with them. I made sure I found the reluctant ones and let them sit until we found, together, books which engaged them. That is my job as an English teacher.
‘The job of adults who care about reading is to move heaven and earth to put that book into a child’s hands.’ (Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer)
The scene from ‘The Outsiders’ which gets to these kids is not the scene when Jonny dies but Dally. Dally, the hard, cold thug, the rebel, the one who cares about nothing, even himself. His death is so unexpected but inevitable that there were gasps in the room, cries of ‘No’. They gasp because they see themselves in Dally. They empathise with this character. They have learned to do this and now go off and read their own books. They are learning through reading in class in all ways. We owe them that.