Don't let this be the last chapter

26th November 2010 at 00:00

I made a wee year girl cry last week, an S1 pupil. She wasn't boo-hooing or being hysterical - just a silent tear and a slightly shaky wiping of the eyes. I was quietly pleased.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Michael Morpurgo made her cry. We were reading the end of Private Peaceful and without revealing the detail (because if you haven't read it, you should), the sad and poignant conclusion had moved our young reader to tears. Such are the joys of reading!

As an English teacher, I might be expected to hail the virtue of the written word but my personal bias doesn't detract from the universal truth that literature really does open windows to worlds unknown in a way that no other medium comes close to.

In many classrooms, however, the reading of texts is packed around with units and assignments - all noble in intent (I use them myself) but sometimes reading should just be about pleasure. Let the book report go and just bathe in the beauty of a story well told.

All my English classes begin with 10 minutes' silent reading of a text of your own choosing, even in my higher section, where time is ever pressing. There's simply no substitute for good reading habits.

Recently I have started buying, from second-hand book shops, copies of texts I read as a child: Biggles; Just Jennings; Treasure Island; Famous Five ... Really it is just a nostalgic indulgence, but the process has reminded me how important books are in those crucial formative years.

Today, books have to compete against powerful rivals for the attention of the young but they are holding their own - I think. Last year over 60 million books for children were sold in the UK, earning #163;293 million for the book industry! So it's big business and, of course, modern business approaches apply, with authors being marketed and feted through media-savvy campaigns. JK Rowling is more "famous" than Shakespeare, it would appear.

In the week after the latest Harry Potter film has been released, however, it's useful to reflect on just what a boost to children's reading habits that whole phenomenon has been - over 400 million sales worldwide, with the texts translated into 67 languages. That's a lot of reading. And there are other children's series which have established themselves very firmly in the market. An appeal for my pupils to donate books they were finished with to the class library elicited a full box-set of hardback Lemony Snicket books (13 in total) with which pupils seemed to be familiar, but of which I had only vaguely heard.

Incidentally, in the context of cutbacks, a real concern in schools is the threatened danger of reductions in school library services - surely a short-sighted measure that would only undermine all of the efforts being made to raise literacy standards.

Interestingly, I received an email recently introducing me to the multi-media world of Inanimate Alice - "a story told through text, sound, images, music and games". A colleague found the whole thing "noisy" but I quite liked it, and its potential appeal to the targeted audience was obvious. I also played during the summer with an iPad and, while my preference will always be for the feel of a book in my hand, I could picture myself, in certain circumstances, happily reading a book online. The key issue is to keep on reading.

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 envisages a dystopian future where books are banned, but only after they have fallen into disuse by a population more intent on banal television, sport sport sport, and the culture of celebrity. Seem familiar?

Larry Flanagan is education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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