How do you turn children into life-long readers? This has been my concern over the last three decades, and I’ve given it a great deal of thought. At last I’ve come up with three ingredients that you have to throw into the pot to produce the desired effect - and here they are!
First of all you need wonderful books - and judging by the 60,000 amazing books on the shelves of my bookshop and the astonishing range of excellent titles produced annually they are certainly available.
Even over the last couple of weeks we’ve been provided with a wide variety of titles - Andy Stanton’s outrageous Mr Gum and the Secret Hide-out is just out, there’s a new book by the brilliant John Boyne which has a distinctive Alice in Wonderland feel, the hugely talented Hans Andersen 2010 winner David Almond has written a prequel to his extraordinary Skellig, and the latest title from Jackie Morris - Ice Bear - tells a moving tale illustrated with sumptuous, atmospheric pictures in her unique style. Kaye Umansky’s Do-do Doo-doo is an entertainingly illustrated work of comedy genius. I could go on and on…
There are rich pickings to be had, and our wonderful public library service is there to ensure that every child in the land has access to a huge variety of exciting books.
Next you need enthusiastic teachers who realise that being a reader isn’t simply about decoding accurately, and who know that they must ensure that children recognise the pleasure and delight that books have to offer. Reading is a whole-school issue and all teachers should be aware of their responsibility to encourage and support reading for pleasure. As Michael Rosen is often heard to say, children should be expected and encouraged to read widely and often.
Sadly there just aren’t enough hours in the school day for all the excitement about books, all the reading aloud, all the author visits, the book events and the sharing of recommendations and new discoveries.
So, finally - this is where the final ingredient comes in - the parents and carers. Without their support from the early years children come to reading at a huge disadvantage. Parents need to be told how valuable reading aloud is, not just for entertainment or for bedtime comfort, but to develop concentration and language development, to introduce a wide range of vocabulary, grammatical constructions, to explore conflicts and emotions. Hearing stories enables children to predict outcomes, to identify with characters and to be curious about new concepts and experiences explored in stories.
Reassurance that pleasure is the key to home reading, leaving the teaching and reinforcing of decoding skills largely to the professionals in school, is often all that parents need to encourage them to enjoy sharing books with their children, thereby laying down the foundations of a life-long love of reading.
Laughing with your children over the Queen’s Knickers, weeping over Goodnight Mr Tom, enjoying the tongue-in cheek humour of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, quaking with trepidation over Cirque du Freak or Coraline, all this should be part and parcel of family life -and it often is in the early years. It’s when school looms on the horizon that parents can get bogged down with anxieties about the practicalities of learning to decode and forget the pleasure, the cuddles and the delight.
Children need to be read to very early - it’s even possible at six weeks old - and this should go on until the child has had enough - some parents read aloud to their children until they’re well into their teens. It’s a wonderfully enjoyable part of family life, and needs to happen regardless of a child’s ability to read independently.
The public library is stuffed full of lovely books - but children need to be taken there, and helped to choose appropriate titles. Choosing is a skill which develops slowly. Left to their own devices children will choose by the picture on the front once they are onto chapter books, and so need to be encouraged to read a couple of pages before they decide on a book. The title they finally decide upon might just be the one that makes them realise that reading is brilliant!
Marilyn Brocklehurst qualified as a children’s and schools’ librarian, and now runs Norfolk Children’s Book Centre, a bookshop built in her garden in the wilds of North Norfolk. Her passion for children’s books and her enthusiasm for engaging children in reading for pleasure is legendary. She works in schools revitalising school libraries, training teachers and speaking to parents and children about the joy of reading.
There are lots of recommended titles on her website:
Norfolk Children’s Book Centre is open to the public 9am-5pm Monday-Saturday.
Adams, Douglas (1979) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Allan, Nicholas The Queen’s Knickers
Almond, David My name is Mina
Boyne, John Noah Barleycorn Runs Away
Gaiman, Neil Coraline
Magorian, Michelle Goodnight Mr Tom
Morris, Jackie Ice Bear
Shan, Darren Cirque du Freak
Stanton, Andy Mr Gum and the Secret Hide-Out
Umansky, Kaye Do-do Doo-doo