Get children hooked on reading, says Pie Corbett.
Reading is magic. Every teacher knows that. You start reading to a class, their jaws drop, eyes open wide, and though they are looking straight at you, their minds are already travelling in another world.
Teachers have always known that reading is a key to educational success. It strengthens the imagination and enables us to think in the abstract. Every writer I have met says the same thing - if you want to improve writing you must "read, read, read". The children who write best are always those who read avidly.
Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), published last term, has uncovered what many of us have suspected. We have become highly skilled at teaching reading but, for some children, we have lost the spark.
They can read but they don't. Try surveying Years 2 to 6 and ask how much they like reading (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, comics, magazines). Use a scale of 1 to 10. Variations between groups of children and between girls and boys may appear. More schools have begun to address this issue as part of their desire to develop a reading culture.
Read to them - a lot
For many children entering school, the picture-book world is new. What would happen if we read to them four or five times a day? (I don't mean sweating through a big book and dissecting every sentence - I mean snuggling up for a quick read of Where's Spot?). Children use the language they have internalised, so re-reading favourites is important.
The right books
Most children need the right book. Class libraries should have not just have books that are only there to serve the national curriculum but also those that interest and intrigue. We have to capitalise on fads, crazes and culture. Class bookshelves need a good range of comics, annuals and non-fiction as well as poetry, short stories and novels. Make sure there are enough quick reads for children who find longer texts daunting.
It's easy to be snobbish about reading. But who was the author that most of us read and read? Yes - the much-maligned Enid Blyton. She helped me become an independent reader - good yarns, easily read, gave me fluency and basic vocabulary. I shifted from Secret Seven to Famous Five and finally to Castle of Adventure. Let's ensure that children have plenty of good reads - what 10-year-old could resist a title like The Toilet of Doom (by Michael Lawrence, Orchard Books)?
Series and favourites
Are there enough serial good reads? In Years 2 and 3, are all the Mr Majeika, Dilly the Dinosaur and Flat Stanley books available? Series often help fluency, and finding a favourite author who can be met at different levels is also a way of hooking readers. A young reader who meets Michael Morpurgo's Butterfly Lion or The Dancing Bear in Year 3 or 4 may come back to him through The War of Jenkins' Ear, Waiting for Anya or Twist of Gold in Years 5 and 6. Common themes and a familiar style become part of the young reader's inner repertoire.
Most children are reading by the end of key stage 1 - when parents often stop hearing them read, just at the wrong moment. Parents need to be encouraged to continue sharing books throughout the primary years. Book clubs and sessions for parents can also act as a motivating force.
Who isn't enjoying reading? Which children are slipping behind? Lunchtime reading clubs or buddy systems can be a simple way of ensuring that those who need more practice have daily reading experiences. Computer-based material, using games, may motivate some children to gain regular reading practice.
Run a quick check through book bags and you may find some children taking home books that are too difficult. Sometimes, it's the cover that attracts them, the book acting as a status symbol. These readers may need "quick reads", perhaps Paul Jennings' short stories or Helena Pielichaty's Simone or Danny Ogle books.
One sneaky way to ensure children read more is to provide anthologies for the class to read as homework. Ask them to read several poems a week from a poetry anthology to be discussed or performed on a Friday after lunch. Play games where they speed-read, running a finger under the words. "Who can find the facts about the Blue Whale? You've got one minute." Some are born slow readers - they savour every word. But slow, careful readers are not favoured by a national test that has a time limit. There are always children who only get halfway through the SATs but score 100 per cent on what they manage to do.
Fuss and a do
Schools where children don't seem to enjoy reading may need to make more of a fuss about this activity. Adults can share their enthusiasms at assemblies where each member of staff presents a book they have enjoyed.
Create a "poet-tree" with branches for different poets or types of poetry - poems or lines written on to leaf shapes. Try holding weekly "recommendation" sessions, where two or three children recommend a book to the class, and prepared reading of a passage that will tantalise the rest of the class.
Authors in school
I believe that every child should be entitled to meet at least one author a year. We should establish a strong national scheme and include story-writers and tellers.
Death by extract
Extracts are always handy. If you are investigating strategies for writing an engaging opening to a story, it helps to look at how a number of authors tackle this. But for reading to become a powerful experience, whole texts have to be read. Junior classes should always have a novel on the go.
Teach in units. Most schools now have moved beyond teaching isolated bits of literacy, to working in larger units. Narrative blocks lend themselves to schools beginning to build up the resources they need for bringing reading alive.
For instance, in Year 4, term 3 might become an Anne Fine term. Into the garage box goes a half class set of Bill's New Frock. Other Fine books can be bunched into sets of five for guided reading. Videos of interviews with the author, televised versions, downloaded material from websites and biographies could be made available.
School library services need to be strengthened to keep schools abreast of new books, help develop school and class libraries, co-ordinate author visits and provide book boxes and packs. LEAs should all have regular secondments for storytellers, poets and authors to work with teachers and schools.
And what about that clump of children who never quite get it? Maybe we didn't turn them on as readers - maybe it will click into place next year? But, at least, let's provide story tapes, regular storytime, dramatised versions, opportunities to listen and discuss. Sometimes the poorest readers end up with the poorest material. Should these children never have the chance to stand with Bilbo in the darkness at the heart of the mountain and hear Gollum making his way across the waters towards them?
Pie Corbett is a poet and educational consultant