I think we, as both adults and teachers, often mythologise our reading histories. Our formative years with books tend to become a short trip down amnesia lane: we’d like to think it was spent reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ in a tree house; or strolling along the riverside contemplating Thomas Hardy’s difficult later works. The reality likely is, for me anyway, somewhat different. I must have given up on loads of books before I found the one that finally got me. Beyond the standards I was studying at school, I struggle to remember the one book which hooked me on to reading, and I try to keep that in mind when encouraging my pupils to choose books.
What brought this to mind was an interesting piece of data I received from our school librarian recently. He handed me a sheet of paper which had the number of books issued to my S1 class (year 8?) since August. Highly impressive numbers indeed. Their weekly library visit is sacrosanct and I encourage them to read often and as widely as possible. However, on closer inspection, I noticed something really interesting. The ‘league table’ – for want of a better expression – of books issued to children corresponded almost perfectly to their reading ability. Surprisingly though, or perhaps not, those children who had taken most books out were the least able in terms of reading comprehension. Almost exactly in order.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. The best readers are reading Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series, amongst others. However, the others seem to be trying lots of books for size and, perhaps, not settling on any one yet. Is that a problem? Well, no, I don’t think so. Yet. My standard response to kids who say they don’t like reading is they they don’t like reading ‘Yet’. They wouldn’t give up all chocolate because they didn’t especially like a Mars bar. My job is to help, advise, encourage them to pick up a book. Ultimately, like me all those years ago, they will read what they want. The important thing for adults is to never, ever give up. To say of a child that ‘they are not a reader’ is shameful, especially for English teachers.
At a recent Parents Evening I had a parent tell me that her son had started reading after a recommendation by me – Mal Peet’s ‘Keeper’ series actually – and while he’d hated me persisting with books and the library, he had now found ‘his book’. I’m unsure how often that happens but I wonder how many kids never get there because we teachers give up on them. Despite the joys books gave to us, and all of the other benefits, we are too quick to label kids ‘non-readers’; and, somewhat ironically, we wring our hands when they struggle with comprehension in other curricular areas.
What we do with Personal Reading in English class is always a tricky one for teachers. How much time should we allow, if any? Can I afford the time with something they should be doing on their own? However, when we make these decisions we need to keep in mind the book which ‘got us’? Remember your younger self and the satisfaction you felt every time you found yourself in that ‘other world’ which no-one could share with you; remember how you felt when you eventually found a book you loved; then take your class to the library. And let them quit books now and again. It’s not a bad thing, really.