Classroom practice - Don't starve children of The Hunger Games

30th January 2015 at 00:00
We shouldn't be afraid when primary pupils want to stretch their reading beyond age-appropriate fiction - we should encourage it

When my daughter first started reading The Hunger Games, I did not expect her to end up, some time later, dressed as the central character Katniss Everdeen and leading her very own rebellion against a repressive regime. Nor that the regime in question would be her school.

It was World Book Day, giving my daughter and her friends an excuse to dress as heroines from their favourite "forbidden" novels in protest at not being allowed to read the books in class.

The problem was the young adult (YA) fiction genre, of which Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy is one of the most popular examples. My daughter and her friends had worked their way through the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the complete works of Jacqueline Wilson and were ready for something new and exciting. They found what they were looking for in Collins' books, as well as Veronica Roth's Divergent and anything by John Green. I was delighted that they had shown the initiative to take their reading to the next level.

A new chapter

I loved that my daughter had found such a rich seam of appealing stories, and was not at all perturbed by the fact that at the age of 10 and 11 she was reading so-called YA fiction, a genre primarily aimed at teenagers but also popular with many adults and younger children.

The fact that crossover novels such as The Hunger Games are shelved in the teenage section of bookshops and appear on lists of recommended texts for children slightly older than my daughter did not mean she should have to wait, in my view. Her school disagreed. When my daughter and her friends asked to read their own books in class, rather than the selection on offer at the school library, they were told they couldn't. The school felt the YA books were unsuitable for her age group.

This reaction is understandable. Children develop at different rates so the safest path for a school is always going to be to follow publishers' age guidelines. But when it comes to books for private reading time, some flexibility (in conjunction with parents) is surely sensible.

In my view, primary schools should enable children to be as free as possible in their choice of literature. As long as parents are involved in vetting books, what better way to foster a love of reading than by letting pupils explore material that stretches, challenges and engages them?

This year's annual What Kids Are Reading report sheds light on this topic. It finds a big difference between the books that pupils report reading most often in Year 6 and those they pick as their favourites. It also claims that most children are under-challenged in their reading after primary school.

For example, Year 6 children read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books more than any other title (followed by The Twits, Gangsta Granny, Billionaire Boy and George's Marvellous Medicine). But when they are asked to name their favourites, the list is completely different, with YA titles such as the Hunger Games trilogy, Stephenie Meyer's vampire romance trilogy Twilight and Michael Grant's Gone all proving popular. Given this disparity, isn't it time that primary teachers sat down and examined YA fiction more closely?

A confusing narrative

We are sending mixed messages to able readers. My daughter and others were entered for the level 6 Sat in reading, which requires children to demonstrate the comprehension skills of a 14-year-old. Yet when these students wished to read material at this level, they were told they weren't allowed. On the one hand, they were being asked to sit a test that requires the inference and deduction skills of a child three years older; on the other, they were told they couldn't study texts that might have helped them to pass.

I realise that not all parents hold the same view as me. I have scoured the internet and the issue is a hot topic in many parenting forums. Although some parents and teachers are thrilled that their reluctant readers have found books they can't put down, others are horrified by the thought of 10-year-olds being exposed to content aimed at teenagers.

"These books seem to be going around Year 6 faster than norovirus," was my favourite comment on one site.

I'm not suggesting that all YA fiction is appropriate for every Year 6 child. But I do think that when students are eager and parents are in agreement, young people should be allowed to read, and be supported to read, these books in class time.

Some teachers are already embracing their pupils' love of YA fiction. One Year 6 teacher I know tells me that she's started using YA novels such as David Almond's Skellig and Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker in literacy lessons, partly because she wants to stretch her pupils and partly because she loves the excitement the books generate. My question is: why can't all primary schools take this approach?

Of course, YA fiction isn't the be-all and end-all - there's a wealth of wonderful children's literature out there and not every teen novel is suitable for a class of 10- and 11-year-olds. But I think a few carefully chosen examples could ignite Year 6 literacy lessons for some students and certainly make quiet reading time far more enjoyable.

After all, these books keep kids turning the pages, which is what it's all about.

Sally Ashworth is a primary teacher and freelance writer in Yorkshire

What else?

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