Just do it (for 20 minutes a day)

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Children's laureate Jacqueline Wilson says that's all it takes to build readers by reading aloud

If the public has been made to stomach five portions of fruit and veg (not including crisps), persuading parents to read to their children for 20 minutes a day should be a raw-food picnic.

Jacqueline Wilson is one of only two contemporary children's authors whose names are likely to be known by adults who don't or can't read. If Alan Sugar ran a series of The Apprentice for literary figures, Ms Wilson would be hired to mass-market yet another reading initiative. Think Ted Hughes inspiring us to learn poetry by heart, as he did almost a decade ago, rather than the Department for Education and Skills telling us what to do.

Next week the children's laureate launches Great Books to Read Aloud, the key campaign of her two-year office. There are no special weeks or days (although the launch ties in with a regular fixture, Share-a-Story month).

She's asking parents and carers to just do it: read aloud to children for 20 minutes a day. And, as with the fruit, she recognises that schools might be the only place it happens for some children. So she's asking schools to do something too. "Schools are all going to say 'What does she know about it?'," she says. "But I know teachers believe in a point in the school day when a book is there for entertainment only, for children to relax, stretch out and enjoy it. If you can't do it for 20 minutes, do it for five."

She has lifted the idea from All Poland Reads to Kids, a campaign that has been running since 2001. The simplicity of the 20-minute message and the mass media support for it won her over before her laureateship started last May. "I had met some Polish people and realised how relatively expensive books are in Poland and yet how reading is treasured," she said.

Last month the campaign by the Polish emotional health charity ABCXXI won the international IBBYAsahi reading promotion award. Its president, former US ambassador's wife Irena Kosminska, imported an American-style strategy of prime-time television and radio advertising aimed at work-weary parents, volunteers working with schools and families, fundraising galas and an annual "read to children" week.

Ms Wilson's campaign starts with a tool parents and teachers can use: a Pounds 1 handbook, also called Great Books to Read Aloud, listing 70 good read-aloud titles for age groups up to 11, for which she has written the introduction. Otherwise, her message is: just do it - don't worry about it.

"I struggled as a parent and I read to my daughter because it was the only thing that would stop her crying, and we bonded over books."

What do you say to parents with poor literacy? "There are so many wonderful picture books in libraries. My mother-in-law didn't read well, and when I saw my daughter run over to her with a book I used to panic, but it worked fine. Children aren't picky. If you're their special adult, that's what matters. You don't have to sound like Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter."

For teachers who hate the sound of their own voices, Rosanne Bartlett has the cure. Mrs Bartlett is assistant head at the Earls high school in Halesowen, and reading aloud is essential in her literacy development work with the school's feeder primaries.

She believes "you are never too old to be read to". She runs evening book events so that parents, "especially fathers", can attend. She also takes the just-do-it approach. "Never miss an opportunity to read aloud in any subject."

Noticing that some of her pupils were leaving primary school with few books in their lives led her to join the Federation of Children's Book Groups in the mid-1990s, later becoming chair.

The FCBG is responsible for Share-a-Story month, among other projects that increase schools' and families' access to books. The children's laureate's campaign lends itself to co-promoting existing work, for example the National Literacy Trust's advice to parents available on www.familyreading.org.uk and the Reading Champions scheme, rather than duplicating it.

What's the worst that can happen? A hapless child will be read to for three 20-minute sessions in one day: at home, school and after-school club. An hour a day of listening is not as potentially catastrophic as 15 portions of fruit and veg. As even Alan Sugar has to say sometimes: "Wilson, you're hired." Now, how much poetry can I remember?

Free Jacqueline Wilson poster in Teacher magazine next week. See www.greatbookstoreadaloud.co.uk and www.childrenslaureate. org for campaign news and events from launch date, May 4.

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