Forget the pap: kids should have access to good quality books to get them to read, says Katie Ashford.
In the past I have gone to great lengths to persuade reluctant readers to pick up a book and, as many teachers will know, this is never a straightforward task.
Hopeful that their efforts will pay off, teachers can spend hours making costumes for World Book Day, creating beautiful reading wall displays, planning trips to places of literary significance, investing time and money in extensive reading programmes that over-promise and under-deliver – and pour their energy into numerous other strategies, all aiming to inspire a love of reading.
Despite all their efforts, however, they can still end up faced with a bunch of grumpy year 10s complaining that reading is “pointless” and “just like TV but slower”.
In 2016, the National Literacy Trust reported a worrying downward trend in teenage reading habits. Only 40 per cent of 14 to 16-year-olds told one survey that they enjoyed reading; a mere 24 per cent said that reading was “cool”. It’s all very worrying: there isn’t a teacher in the land who doesn’t recognise the importance of reading to build knowledge and skills, and ultimately to transform lives.
If kids find reading boring, then it seems logical to try to find ways to make reading not boring for them
If kids find reading boring, then it seems logical to try to find ways to make reading not boring for them. And so many teachers work hard to find the book that will change their view, the book that best appeals to their interests, the book that makes reading “click” for them. They might go for something gritty with a surprising plot twist like A Monster Calls, or something fun and accessible like Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
It’s a seductive idea. If pupils start on books they love, the cloak of fear that surrounds reading for many of them could be removed. Through tailored teenage gems like The Fault in our Stars and The Hunger Games, they might see that books are not to be shunned and ignored, but embraced.
It strikes me, however, that this approach is built on the false assumption that reading is dull and that it is therefore our job as teachers to find ways to make it less dull. Like parents hiding bits of broccoli in a kid’s macaroni cheese, it’s as if we are desperate to get them to just read something, as if we are begging them, and therefore conceding that reading is indeed boring and not worthy of our engagement.
If we are begging them, and therefore conceding that reading is indeed boring and not worthy of our engagement
This approach doesn’t cut to the core of the issue. What does the child read after they have finished reading that story about football or celebrities?
What if that doesn’t spur them on to read more? What do they do when they inevitably have to read something that is outside their comfort zone?
What if, instead of looking to pander to children’s tastes, teachers step back and remember what it is that makes literature great? The best writers, such as Orwell, Angelou, Chaucer, Tolstoy, Marquez, Shakespeare, have all touched upon aspects of the human condition that transcend time, place and personal interest. Rather than sugar-coating reading by giving pupils something that echoes the world they already live in, why not encourage them to break out of it and explore something new and unchartered?
Getting kids to read books they will find easy and accessible isn’t intrinsically bad, but it should not be the route to inculcating a lifelong love of reading.
As teachers, it is our job to broaden horizons and support young people to escape the limitations of their own experience. If we make reading great literature a habit – by reading daily and discussing their ideas – we help them to see the merits of reading.
Reading isn’t just about reading what you enjoy: it’s about expanding your world and being brave.
Katie Ashford is deputy head and director of inclusion at Michaela community school in north London