Andrew Beasley: Burning Questions About Reading for Pleasure in Schools
What have been some of your favourite ideas/projects/strategies to get kids reading for pleasure?
As a parent, teacher and author one of my greatest joys has been sharing my passion for the written word. Reading is the key which will open any door!
I especially love making an event out of reading – setting up a tent (in class or outside) and reading by torchlight, going into the woods and reading by a campfire, building a castle (only a cardboard one!) with a magical story throne inside.
One of my most successful ventures was when I created the ‘Bedtime Story Club’. This was an after school session where younger pupils could bring in their own books and their dressing gowns and teddies! I would read to them for a whole hour. It started with just one or two children but by the end I had nearly fifty!
How much influence can a school hope to have on getting children reading? Can it be more influential than home and peer groups?
If our pupils respect us, then they will want to copy our behaviour in their own lives
Conventional wisdom, and a lot of teaching experience, will tell you that children who come from a home where reading is celebrated will have a head start in school, and will often maintain that lead throughout their school years. However – and it is a big however in my book – it is a mistake to diminish the influence a teacher can have.
I hope we can all recall with crystal clarity the teacher who made a difference. The right word, spoken at the right time, can have huge impact. Teachers can, and do, effect change.
It starts, I think, with the teachers themselves. What value do they place on reading? Not just on learning, progress and attainment, but on the act of reading itself? I know some teachers who never read. I get the reasons – the demands of the job, the limits on time – and yet I cannot truly understand it as a lifestyle choice. As teachers we are role models, for good or ill. If our pupils respect us, then they will want to copy our behaviour in their own lives.
The simplest example of this is as a teacher/reader. The children always know what I am reading. It probably helps that I am a children’s author, and so my reading list includes everything from Doctor Who to Jeff Kinney! The children know that they are free to ask me what I think about Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and yes, my own Ben Kingdom adventures. They ask me what I like and what I don’t. We talk books together. It becomes that shared moment between a teacher and child, outside of the work, work, work which demands most of the school day. Children recommend books to me. I recommend books to them. It is a club. A dialogue. A shared adventure.
At the very least, I recommend that every teacher has a shelf of their own books on display in class. Even better is when the children get to borrow those books; the same copy of the same story their teacher has read. When this enthusiasm is shared across an entire school it is possible to achieve a culture shift. ‘What are you reading?’ is translated into playground currency. Reading becomes the ‘thing’ that everybody does in this school. Whether it be Chris Bradford or Holly Webb or Derek Landy or Charlie Higson, reading is what the cool kids do.
I’ve seen it and been part of it.
It could happen in your school too.
When it comes to reading for pleasure in school, when (if ever) should we intervene in a child's decisions about what to read? For instance, what do we do when we see someone picking up the Guinness Book of Records for the umpteenth time?
Just like adults, children can get very set in their reading habits. How many adults do we know who only read M.C.Beaton/Bernard Cornwell/Agatha Christie/Lee Child (delete where applicable)?
I regularly challenge my class with ‘New Year Reading Resolutions’ and I recall one very sweet lass who promised to 'try not to read so many books about Guinea pigs’. She was a delightful girl, but she failed at our first free library session, finding herself quite helpless to the irresistible pull of Baby Guinea Pigs and How to Care for Them'. I think, in the end, it is much like getting a child to try different foods (and parents know how hard that can be!). The children have to model you, and be given endless opportunities to have another try… go on, just one spoonful, you might like it this time.
Of course, and parents will get this too, I also bribe children! I call it a reward system (a sticker, a merit mark) but whatever carrot works – use it! One successful incentive scheme I ran was ‘Read Around the World’. I had a huge map of the globe on the wall and each child was represented by their own plane. Essentially books could be converted into ‘air miles’ and children read and read to move their plane the furthest. An extra element I added to encourage reading diversity was the addition of ‘holiday routes’ (fiction) and ‘exploration routes’ (non-fiction) – stretches of air miles which could only be added to a child’s reading passport when they took a different reading route to normal.
In my experience, pupils who don't choose to pick up a book will nonetheless enjoy being read to - challenging classes do still fall silent and listen if you're reading to them. Is this your experience too? If so, why do you think this is the case?
Stories, read with enthusiasm and expression, can have an almost magical hold over a class.
Reading to children, of whatever age, is one of the most powerful things we can do as teachers. Even pupils who ‘don’t like reading’ still enjoy stories.
In different year groups I’ve read Matilda, Huckleberry Finn, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and a dozen others. Stories, read with enthusiasm and expression, can have an almost magical hold over a class. They become the "treat" after a hard day’s work, the "peaceful space" when things need to calm down. They become, in the end, the thing which children remember years later in adult life. ‘I had this teacher who used to read us The Hobbit…’
Stories are the lifeblood of humanity. There isn’t a culture or a creed anywhere in the world which doesn’t come together around the telling of tales. I can’t help but feel that if we aren’t reading to our children we are missing out on something spun from pure gold, a lifelong treasure.
How much do you think reading for pleasure can contribute to academic success?
That’s almost like asking me, ‘How much can breathing for pleasure contribute to success in swimming underwater?' In my universe the two are inextricably linked.
Personally, I think I would have gone mad as a student (I studied law, not known for being light on the reading front) if I didn’t have the release valve of reading for fun.
If reading is only a tool, then the chances are that tool is going to get rusty and blunt!