A few months ago, I had the privilege of meeting a Year 5 class from a primary school in the North of England. The school itself was like many others – cash strapped, under pressure to deliver results, working with children from a very wide demographic. But there was a palpable energy about the place, and what struck me about this particular Year 5 was how engaged they were in reading. They told me enthusiastically, raucously even, about the books they were reading: they argued with each other passionately about which books were better than others (Tom Gates versus Alex Rider… I couldn’t possibly say who won).
So I set out to find out why these children were so excited about books when too many other young people around the country still see books as ‘not for them’.
The reason these Year 5s really struck me is because the sad reality is that too many children and young people don’t see reading as an enjoyable activity. Research shows that children are reading less, giving up earlier, and that these trends are getting worse, not better.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that children are reading less, bearing in mind the number of high octane activities now open to them. I read a lot when I was younger, but the world was a different place then. I grew up at a time when video games were dull; now they are thrilling, sociable, worlds-within-worlds. I grew up at a time when television was limited and Hi-de-Hi was the dernier cri of comedy; now teenagers have boxsets galore, films at the touch of a button and You Tube videos of grumpy dogs or dancing cats. I had the family telephone, children now have their own smartphone with Snapchat, WhatsApp, Instagram and more, continually calling for them to update and share information and pictures.
But children have always had other distractions, and they are no excuse. As life has become more exciting, children’s quiet moments are in danger of being lost. As communication is speeding up, the ability to invest time in a story is under threat. The reality is that there is nothing like reading to support children’s development. When we read, we create worlds within our own head; we inhabit characters; we learn about new worlds; we come across words we haven’t encountered before. When we read we are utterly focused on the task at hand – we cannot read, watch, text and have a conversation; we have to concentrate, we have to commit. And as we read, we become better readers; more fluent, more ambitious, more capable of interpreting, reading between the lines and understanding nuances.
Simply put, reading matters. Children who enjoy reading are happier, healthier, more empathetic, more confident than their peers. They have better vocabulary; they do better at school; and they are more likely to go on to higher education. In fact, the amount a child reads for pleasure is a better predictor of key educational outcomes than socio-economic background.
The trouble is that all too often – as educators, parents, and policy-makers – we focus on the skill and not the passion. Governments have presented mixed messages of highlighting reading for pleasure, whilst failing to provide the tools and resources to really make a difference. Tick lists of ‘books you should have read by the time you’re 18’ or ‘the top 50 classics every child should have read’ have turned reading into a tick-list activity – or, worse, something that can be ‘completed’ and then left. Instead we need to see reading as something that is fun and something to be enjoyed as regularly as possible, like exercise. And, like exercise, we believe strongly that there is no ‘right book’; the trick is to find the book you want to read, to find the book that speaks to you, to find the book you simply can’t put down. That might be a classic, it might be a young adult novel, or it might be a graphic novel.
Schools, teachers and school librarians play such an important role in helping children find that book. It’s why we sent every primary school in the country our ‘Great Books Guide’ packed full of recommendations that we know children will love. It’s why BookTrust’s Children’s Book Week is this year focusing on schools and how they can create a reading for pleasure culture in their schools. Because whilst it might be yet another priority to add to all the others, it is surely a priority that deserves to sit right at the top of any list. And the good news is that it doesn’t need to be costly, or demanding on time. It simply requires a commitment to make it happen.
The primary school where the Year 5s loved reading had that commitment. And the secret, I discovered from the head, was as easy as one, two, three. 1. Access to books for every child in the school. 2. The conviction that every child (and every teacher) should be a reader. 3. The belief that reading takes many forms (in other words, it doesn’t matter what you read; literature is just one of many forms; and the Stampy Minecraft book is as valid a choice as Treasure Island).
A three-point plan might work for your school; or perhaps you’d prefer to adopt the suggestion made by our organisation’s president, Michael Morpurgo, to have story-time for every child at the end of every school day. If you need support, meanwhile, our website is packed with tips for teachers, lesson plans, book recommendations and more. But really, we want to hear from you: what works in your school? How can we help you and other schools to make a school-wide reading for pleasure culture something you can deliver, and not just aspire to?
Whatever route you choose, we must be clear on one thing: reading is under threat, and inspiring a generation of children to love reading won’t happen easily. But reading enjoyment can transform lives, not to mention changing the energy of an entire school. That, surely, is worth giving it our best shot.
Diana Gerald is chief executive of the Book Trust