Kids should be exposed to all kinds of books (and that includes Mills & Boon), says Joy Ballard.
As a teacher, I know that instilling hard-to-reach and reluctant young students with a love of reading is one of the most difficult aspects of our job – yet in many respects it is also the most important.
Literacy skills are the key building block for life, from which almost all other future successes grow, so it is vital we find a way to instil as many children as possible with a love of reading. Experts argue over the best way to do this, but my mantra is very simple – expose children to all kinds of material when they are young and a love for reading more complex texts will follow.
I adore reading so people are often surprised when I tell them that I was not particularly interested in books at school. I fell under my teachers’ radar somewhat and left education with the most rudimentary literacy skills. I would get by, but I would never excel. By 21 I had three children. My horizons had been shut off by my weak grasp of reading and, in truth, I grew bored.
I travelled the world with Mills & Boon
One day, after the morning school run, I was browsing in a shop and came across a Mills & Boon novel. I can’t recall its title, but I remember being drawn in by the characters on the cover, and the sunset – it pulled me in and I bought a copy. I finished it within two days and went back for more.
Admittedly, Mills & Boon will never be anyone’s idea of classic literature. But the principles are largely the same and for me it was a foot in the door to a wealth of other books waiting to be discovered. I travelled the world with Mills & Boon; the characters and storylines exposed me to exotic places that I had never visited and did not ever dream that I would. From then on my relationship with reading was changed and I used it as a stepping stone to the worlds of Austen, Brontë and Dickens. I enrolled in night school, studied for a degree and trained as a teacher – all because of a few cheesy romance novels.
It is this belief in the transformative power of reading that steers my approach to literacy to this very day. While reading should be prioritised in the classrooms it does not help when teachers are overly prescriptive about the types of material that their students are looking at.
Admittedly, Mills & Boon will never be anyone’s idea of classic literature
They like magazines? Great – let them read them. Goosebumps? Equally great. There’s a good deal of academic evidence to suggest that boys, traditionally the most hard to enthuse, prefer reading non-fiction books on subjects such as space and history over the traditional novel. Any interest in reading, however small, should be encouraged.
I am proud to say that our work on literacy is paying off. Ofsted noted in its recent report – in which Ryde academy moved to “good” from “requires improvement” – the strong emphasis that we place on literacy and how its positive effects permeate through the wider curriculum.
The love for reading is a journey rather than an end goal. A seven-year-old is not going to start this journey wanting to pick up Don Quixote or Anna Karenina, but that does not mean that it would be an unrealistic aim in the future. Intelligence isn’t fixed, it needs to be exercised and this is best done through reading. When I picked up my first Mills & Boon I never would have thought that it would have led to me discovering the joys of Shakespeare and Chaucer.
I would urge everyone to open their minds to all kinds of reading material – I can say first-hand that its effects really can be transformative.
Joy Ballard is principal of Ryde Academy on the Isle of Wight, part of Academies Enterprise Trust. She previously starred in the Channel 4 series Educating Cardiff and was secondary headteacher of the year in the 2015 Pearson teaching awards.