How five minutes of listening can make all the difference to reading

5th March 2010 at 00:00
Ace storyteller Alec Williams says `Let's get reading out of literacy and make it a pleasure' - for boys as well as girls

You would never nod off if Alec Williams was reading you a bedtime story. He gets every drop of drama out of every line and never misses an opportunity for a laugh - children who have heard him have compared him to Mr Bean.

This afternoon, his largely female audience of Aberdeen teachers and librarians is enjoying his seminar, highlighted with several entertaining extracts and poems to illustrate his theme.

"Before we go any further, I'd better come clean about my underpants," he announces, reading from the opening chapter of The Killer Underpants by Michael Lawrence.

Alec Williams has 30 years' experience in public library work, mainly with children and education. He is a former chair of the School Library Association and for the past 10 years has worked as a freelance trainer and storyteller, both in this country and overseas.

Today's seminar at Northfield Academy is about Encouraging Reading, which he peppers with wonderful quotes about the value and pleasure of reading. "If you want your child to be brilliant, read them fairy tales. If you want your child to be a genius . read them more fairy tales." - Albert Einstein.

One of the day's topics explores how to encourage boys' reading and Mr Williams sounds a note of caution to this predominantly female audience. "I think it is important if you are thinking about attracting boys to reading that you are not influenced too much by your own personal book choices, which might be more female-orientated.

"So if you are raving or enthusing about different categories of books, you need to make sure you are raving as much about sports stories, science fiction - whatever - even if they are not to your taste," he says.

The day has been organised by Northfield Academy's enthusiastic librarian, Mandy Wilson. She is working to engage reluctant readers with the help of Lottery funding, which has transformed the school library and supported ventures such as this.

"I wanted something that was going to have an impact, not just in Northfield but in the whole of Aberdeen City. The idea was that we could train teachers, librarians, pupil support assistants, everyone who works in schools, how to encourage children to read, so they could take it back to their schools and develop it further," Mrs Wilson explains.

With boys in mind, Mr Williams talks about the importance of male role models as readers of fiction and storytellers in schools. And he encourages teachers and librarians to get children's opinions about what they like and don't like, and why they use or don't use the library. "Do more reading aloud, tell more stories - just have a go," he enthuses.

After his talk, he explains the importance of recognising the merit of everything children read, rather than making value judgments about the quality of their reading material. "I am a big fan of starting where kids are, then working with them. If they like football, you can find them books on football skills, biographies of footballers, and you can find stories that feature football. That way, you can maybe sneak them into fiction reading."

He's also big on fun and enjoyment: "I say: `Let's get reading out of literacy,' because reading for pleasure is a phrase that works for me - literacy for pleasure? Not so sure. Once something becomes a school subject, then you worry about it, you are tested on it and your progress is monitored."

He also encourages what he calls "guilt-free reading" without children facing the penalty of having to write a review or discuss it afterwards. "Sometimes it's great for teachers just to say: `We've got five minutes, we're going to have a story and you don't have to do anything afterwards.' You can watch them just relax and enjoy."

His audience respond with appreciative enthusiasm. Hester Beattie is principal teacher of drama at Northfield, who's coming to the end of almost two years' secondment with Aberdeen arts education. She said Mr Williams had communicated his message entertainingly and effectively. "The teachers who we remember from school are always the ones who communicated whatever enthusiasm they had and made you want to go and find more," she says.

The day's themes had special resonance for Heather Simpson, a teacher at Quarryhill Primary, who is teaching literacy across the whole school: "I thought this was really good. Full of loads of good ideas you can take away and work with."

Community librarian at Bucksburn Academy, Catriona McGrath liked an idea aired during a group discussion where a 3D object relating to a particular genre is used for picking out new book titles. "You make a 3D skull and put book suggestions in it for horror and the children pull out ideas, almost like a lucky dip for which book they're going to read next," she says.

"I thought he was absolutely fantastic. We had so many laughs, he's such an entertaining speaker. I am buzzing with so many ideas of things we can do.

"Even seeing how well he can tell a story makes you think: `Well, maybe I could go and do that in my school as well.' Use the storytelling side of things to get people into books and reading. If you can make something sound entertaining, that's really important."

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