I don’t remember learning to read. I consider it a huge privilege that I only have memories of being a reader. I think it’s because I was quite nosy and once I’d mastered talking, which those that know me won’t be surprised to find out was at a very young age, I didn’t want to be locked out from this world the adults could access for a second longer than necessary. Walking came late, reading came early and that is reflected in how my spend my leisure time as an adult. I was surrounded by books growing up, they lined the walls of every room in our house. Whole worlds, carefully hidden between battered, worn covers just waiting to be explored. Reading introduced me to new ideas, people and places, some real and some fictitious, that enriched my life and fuelled my imagination. So it’s with interest that I read Katie Ashford’s article about what children should be reading. There’s a marvellous post from Sue Cowley on the hierarchy of books which sort of sums up everything I wanted to say in this post. So instead I’ve decided to reflect on my own “reading journey” and the teachers who guided me through it.
By the time I got to school I would proudly announce that I could read “by myself” to anyone who would listen (I was probably quite annoying as a child.) My Reception teacher, Mrs Woodhams, gave me books from her own collection to take home once I’d worked my way through the class library. At home we’d read the Ahlbergs, Shirley Hughes, Jill Murphy, oh and a book called “Bad Mood Bear” before bed. I read whatever I could get my hands on but there are a few books that stand out in my memories of my school years.
I think I’m right in saying that the “Puddle Lane” books were the 80s equivalent of “The Magic Key” series. I have a distinct memory of bringing them home and reading them to my brother. Lucky him. I remember being thrilled to be given the chance to read, “The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark” aloud to the class in Year 1. In Year 3 I became obsessed with the “Flossy Teacake” books – I must look those up again – they were brilliant. Bel Mooney’s “Kitty” books were another favourite, oh and not forgetting Jill Murphy’s “Worst Witch.” There was a series of books by Nigel Hinton that I loved called, “Beaver Towers” it was about a boy called Philip and his adventures with a family of beavers. Whenever I ran out of books – I’d scour my Mum’s bookshelves for anything I thought looked interesting – which is why by the time I’d left Primary School I’d read more Libby Purves than most 11-year-olds. Nothing was off limits. There were no “good books” or “bad books” there weren’t even “hard” or “easy” books there were just books to be enjoyed every day.
In Year 5 I read my first classic. As a class we read the “The Hobbit.” There was no film to rely on in 1995 and, even if there had been, we only had one twenty minute session in the TV room a week, it would have taken over 9 weeks to get through it. Instead we were skillfully guided through Tolkien’s Middle-Earth by Miss Fry. She would read it to us every day and photocopy chapters for us to read at home. We drew maps of Middle-Earth and even created a “life size” Smaug out of chicken wire and paper mâché. (Which I’ve since found out was rolled out to greet Ofsted when they turned up. It is my belief that all schools should have an Ofsted dragon.) This sculpture was so enormous that we had to move it out into the playground so we could all work on it. As well as grappling with Tolkien we were also treated to a poems by Michael Rosen and Spike Milligan. Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Tennyson were introduced to me in Year 6 and I loved them but after school I’d have my nose in the latest Babysitter’s Club or “Animal Ark” book.
Secondary school was where I was introduced to the big guns: Orwell, Hardy, Dickens, Austen and Keats. Some I loved and some I found insufferably dull. For GCSE I read, “The Handmaid’s Tale” the book that started my love affair with Margaret Atwood. 6 years later I wrote a dissertation about it. Conversely, for A-Level I had to read Thomas Hardy’s, “The Return of the Native” and I could not get to grips with it. My form tutor at the time, who was an English teacher herself, listened to me moaning about how complicated the plot was and how difficult I found it to keep up with what was going on. Her response was perfect and has always stayed with me: “Oh Zoe, come on now, the plot is no more complicated than the plot of ‘The OC.'” (‘The OC’ was a programme full of teen drama that I watched avidly at the age of 17.)
From then on she would ask me every day how much more I’d read until I finally got to the end. I am forever grateful to her for doing this. It got me the grades I needed to study Literature at university and proved to me that I was capable of sticking with a book (a skill I had to draw on often when studying Anglo-Saxon literature in later years.) However, it was also the first time I’d ever had to really force myself to finish a book I wasn’t enjoying and it put me off reading Hardy for years (“Tess of the d’Urbervilles” changed my mind.)
I think we need a two-pronged approach when it comes to introducing children to books. The first thing we need to do is completely surround them with books without preference or prejudice. Picture books, graphic novels, classics, nonsense poems, everything from Jeff Kinney to C.S Lewis. I disagree that “hooking” children in to reading with books based on their interests won’t lead to a life long love of literature. My brother grew up on a literary diet of football magazines, Liverpool FC annuals and the occasional “Goosebumps” book until the age of 14 and now reads widely and regularly. Let children read whatever they want at home, show that you’re interested in what they’re reading and encourage them to bring in their favourite books and share them with the class. Recommend other texts they might enjoy and please never tell a child, “you’re a bit too old to be reading that.”
This is not to say that children should leave school without any experience of the classics – they can be introduced alongside all this “easy” reading. Whilst the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens should not be the preserve of the most able pupils neither should they replace “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” With patience we can guide pupils through these “harder” texts and make them accessible. I’ve taught “The Tempest” to 6-year-olds. It was the year of the 2012 Olympics and the class had seen Kenneth Brannagh read Caliban’s speech in the opening ceremony. Given that they were already interested in the speech I decided to run with it and introduce them to the play. I taught from both an abridged children’s version and the original. As Shakespeare plays go, “The Tempest” is a good one to start with as it’s full of magic, a wizard, a storm and a monster. I know people will pipe up with, “But if you feel that you have to “sell” Shakespeare to children you are suggesting it isn’t interesting or worthwhile.” I’m not. I’m suggesting that if you want six-year-olds to read Early Modern English don’t expect them to be immediately interested. That’s not a new, radical idea – the first children’s Bible was published in 1759 in an attempt to make it more accessible to children.
By the end of that term the entire class knew Caliban’s speech by heart and we took turns performing it from the top of the playground equipment. Gimmicky? Perhaps. Sugar coating? Possibly. But there are 30 children who are no longer intimidated when they read Shakespeare. That particular class also know Michael Rosen’s “Chocolate Cake” by heart because we read it so many times and they in turn introduced me to the delights of “Mr Gum.”
I hate this notion that some books are too “easy” because when you’re learning to read it isn’t easy and it isn’t always interesting and I don’t believe that it’s selling children the assumption reading is dull by finding them books they’re interested in. The books you first read for yourself and enjoy are so special they stay with you for the rest of your life. A book that sparks interest and inspires a child to pick up another is like a magic key (not that one) that unlocks the world of reading.
Although I am the teacher that hid the “Where’s Wally?” books from my Year 5 class…