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Wednesday 19 January 2011

'There's More to Life than Books, you know, But Not Much More.'

The last ten years or so seems to have witnessed a renaissance in children’s literature. Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, Artemis Fowl, Twilight, Northern Lights, Jacqueline Wilson...need I go on? So it always comes a s a surprise to me when I’m told that kids don’t read any more. Take a walk into your local book shop, have a browse around the internet retailers. Kids books are everywhere, and good ones too.
I would confess that for the first four or so years of my teaching career, I failed and failed badly in my duty – and I do use that word deliberately – to encourage a love of reading in the students to whom I teach English. Caught up in a world of trying to impress superiors – desperate to be noticed, looking for a job – planning and meeting deadlines became the most important thing for me. Time for personal reading was rare – days I’d planned poorly; breathing space- and I rarely assessed whether they were getting anything from it, even pleasure. The something happened.
In a second hand bookshop I found a copy of Nancie Atwell’s  ‘In the Middle. Writing Reading and Learning with Adolescents’.  An American text which was a bit tatty but it changed my career, without a doubt. I read about a teacher who had, like me, skirted around literacy without really reaching her students but then decided if these same students were to engage with reading in their everyday lives, they must be allowed to read. Reading must become the centre of their day.  It reminded me of why I wanted to be an English Teacher in the first place.
Since then every class I have begins with ten minutes of reading – not a great deal but better than nothing – and from S1 to S3 (eleven to fourteen year olds) all have a Reading Journal in which they discuss their reading and converse with me in diary form. All of my students read every day; even though I see them for barely fifty minutes a day and have a million other things to fit in. I became  an English teacher because I loved the things that books did to me, the person they made me and I truly believe that can be the case for every child who walks into my classroom. If I’m being honest, I’ve not always been completely successful but Nancie Atwell’s book sent me in a direction which may allow me to be better.
So, what turns young kids off reading?
  • Lack of access to good books in the classroom. And when I say ‘good’ I mean good condition, high interest, varied.
  • No space to read just for fun -  ‘Why do we have to write a Review?’
  • No time given to read for enjoyment every day.
  • No place of their own just to read .
  • No experience of seeing adults read for enjoyment.
  • There may be others…

And, what do we do about that?
  • We go into school tomorrow and look through our classroom libraries. If there is a book that you would not read because it looks tatty, has graffiti, or is just rubbish, then throw it in the bin. Would you want your own child to pick it up? No? Then dump it!
  • We make it a class law that our kids will stop writing book reviews from today. They serve no educational purpose whatsoever. They turn boys, especially, away from reading forever. They are a big, fat waste of time. If you do need to review, film them, use a FLIP camera and stick it on a website for them to see at home.
  • We start reading for fun.  Make ten minutes at least every day for that. You will fit in everything else which is important, I assure you; and what you see as being important will change over time, I promise.
  • We will read while they read. I have found nothing which is more of an incentive for kids to read than seeing me doing it. I shush them when they are interrupting my reading; I also invite other to shush me when I interrupt them. If we are to convince kids that reading is something that matters outside of the English classroom, then we must model good reading. They may not see any evidence of adults reading quietly at home. Model good reading by creating the atmosphere you yourself need for reading. It works. And, to be honest, it acts as a great ‘calmer’.
  • Get them into the library. On the floor, on beanbags, on cushions.  When you settle down to reading do you choose the most uncomfortable plastic chair you can find? Thought not.
I think I’m learning about reading all the time. Wee strategies I steal from others and pass on, improve. And if I have not convinced you then think about this. What made you an English Teacher in the first place?


  1. I totally agree with you. My pupils read for twenty minutes a week and they don't do more because of the reasons you listed above.

    I put a library in my classroom and bought loads of really good, cheap books from charity shops. I think I managed to buy about eighty books for about £15 over the course of a year. Definitely a worthwhile investment.

  2. A stunning blog which I agree with 100%

  3. Great blog post. I was wondering what name you go by on Twitter... I had a look over your site but couldn't find it.