Hooked on books
The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go." It's difficult to disagree with Dr Seuss. Reading is central to a child fulfilling their potential, according to Julia Strong, deputy director of the National Literacy Trust (NLT). "It makes a difference to how they write, their communication skills, as well as how they enjoy their interests," she says.
Indeed, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2002 found reading enjoyment to be more important for a child's educational success than their family's wealth or class.
Although guided reading groups are a part of school literacy life, now there is a move towards social reading for children, with their own book groups. Children's book clubs are popular in the United States and on the increase in the UK. And teachers, often book lovers themselves, are giving up their spare time to organise them.
Lisa Tippings, a teacher at Tredegar Comprehensive in Gwent, is a firm believer in out-of-school book clubs (the one she runs is a member of the Federation of Children's Book Groups). "If the children are confident in a small group, it will make them confident in the classroom," she says.
Her club's 10 members, aged five to 11, meet fortnightly and Lisa chooses stories that appeal to all the children while bringing in elements of the national curriculum. Lisa recommends Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean and David Wyatt, The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen and Weird Tales from the Storyteller by Daniel Morden and Jac Jones.
The children sometimes write poetry and Lisa also focuses on speaking and listening activities, encouraging the children to talk and answer questions about what they've been reading. They might even do more varied activities, perhaps making masks or swords, as long as it's related to the book under discussion.
Lisa would like authors to read for the group and is fundraising with the children to make this happen. The club has gone so well that she is also starting a lunchtime version for her Year 7 and 8 pupils.
The crucial factor is building young readers' confidence. This is especially important if English is not their first language, as is the case with 93 per cent of pupils at Edith Neville Primary School in Somers Town, London.
Karen Long, a teacher at the school currently on maternity leave, pioneered a book group for six to eight Year 3 children who had all been chosen based on their poor confidence as readers. The group, organised as a breakfast club, met weekly for a term. Each week they chose a different book, read aloud and then discussed what they had read. "The groups had a marked impact in the children, in their confidence, their self-awareness as readers and their willingness to talk about books," says Karen.
The introduction of Orange Chatterbooks, children's book groups run by libraries, is an example of a successful partnership between schools and the library service. Marjorie Reeves, a teacher at All Saints Catholic Primary School in Bootle, brings children from Years 4 to 6 to their Chatterbooks group. "Some of the children are from backgrounds where reading is not a priority and the majority have extended their reading," she says. "They are more confident now about looking up information in books. They even take their books into the playground."
Lesley Davies, a children and young people's librarian for Sefton Council, co-ordinates the Chatterbooks scheme in her area, and she says the feedback from schools has been entirely positive. "There has been a marked improvement, and one school, Waterloo Primary in Sefton, told me that Sats results have gone up because of the reading groups," she says.
This year is the National Year of Reading, but there is a wide assumption that children do not read. A Progress in International Reading Literacy Study report from last year confirmed this view. It highlighted a decline in British children reading for pleasure - less than half (40 per cent) said they did. But this survey did not cover new media such as online material, phone texts and magazines.
Research by the NLT highlighted a change, rather than a decline, in reading trends, suggesting that children do read - just not books. Of the 1,614 children surveyed from 29 primary and secondary schools, the majority (71 per cent) said that they enjoyed reading and rated themselves as proficient readers, while a quarter classed themselves as non-readers. Yet in both cases they did read, but preferred magazines, websites and emails to fiction.
Academic evidence shows parental involvement in their child's literacy activities has a positive effect on performance at school. Cynthia Rousso's son Henry, 9, has been attending a parentchild-led children's book group in north London for the past year and a half. The group of six children meet approximately every month. Whoever hosts the book group chooses the book and plans a discussion and activity around it.
"Henry's enthusiasm for the book group has had a direct impact on his school performance," says Cynthia. "Reading is no longer a chore but something he finds interesting and exciting. His teachers have also noticed his eagerness to share ideas."
This enthusiasm motivated him to invite his favourite author, Andy Stanton, to the book group, shortly before Andy won the 2007 Red House Children's Book Award (organised by the Federation of Children's Book Groups) for You're A Bad Man, Mr Gum!
READING MATTER - FACTS AND FIGURES
Chatterbooks was set up in 2002 by The Reading Agency and now has 500 children aged four to 12 participating in more than 300 Chatterbooks reading groups, either after school or on Saturday mornings, in 130 library services in the UK. Visit www.readingagency.org.uk for more details.
The Federation of Children's Book Groups is a voluntary organisation set up in 1968, with 30 registered members in the UK. New groups can bid for a grant (about pound;250). It holds an annual conference in the spring and co-ordinates the Red House Children's Book Award. See www.fcbg.org.uk.
Keep the group small - six to eight children at most. Choose books carefully and think about appropriate activities to enhance what's been read.
You could have a treasure hunt, murder mystery, spy game or just a quiz. Discussion time will vary depending on the age of the children. They don't need to be keen readers but should be open-minded about trying new authors or genres.
Where possible, invite authors to talk to the children. Some may charge, but the grant provided by the Federation of Children's Book Groups might cover this. It's a good idea to supply food.
Keep the pages turning
Try a variety of texts, from classics to contemporary and newly published books. Good ones might be: Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, Skellig by David Almond, Jimmy Coates: Killer by Joe Craig. For younger readers, try Frindle by Andrew Clements and Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.