Reading Matters: what research reveals about reading, libraries and community

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Reading Matters: what research reveals about reading, libraries and community

By Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie and Paulette M Rothbauer Greenwood pound;17.99. Order on 01865 888181

Anyone who wants to spread the word that reading is both fun and socially enabling will find this book an indispensable armoury of evidence in support of their case.

The three Canadian academics cut to the chase by asking, "What keeps readers reading for the thousands and thousands of hours necessary to produce... confident readers?" The question is pure hyperbole, of course, and it is followed with Stephen Krashen's assertion that "those who do not develop the pleasure reading habit don't have a chance" of acquiring the level of literacy needed for full participation in the world.

The authors attack the common perception of the reader as a solitary person, likely to be introverted and somewhat withdrawn from the world. On the contrary, the research copiously cited in this book demonstrates that readers are several times more likely than non-readers to engage in a range of social activities, from visiting museums to going to sports events or volunteering for charity work.

In the section on young adult reading, they cite the "myriad conversations held in various social arenas" about the Harry Potter books, and the way readers converse together in book groups, fan clubs or in online discussion groups and chatrooms.

On nearly every page there is a telling statistic. How about this one? One research study, based on tape recordings made in the home, found there was a 30 million-word gap in the amount of talk experienced by children at opposite ends of the social spectrum. The research also identified a huge difference in the quality of language experienced, with children from more socially deprived families hearing "125,000 more prohibitions than encouragement".

Each chapter is divided into bite-sized sections with helpful headings such as What Libraries Can Do, What Parents Can Do, What Counts As Reading? Each section has its own list of references. The range of evidence used is impressive. From ironic citations of historical attempts to suppress the pleasure factor (the 19th-century disapproval of the popular novel) to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's discovery, in his 1990 book Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, that "reading is currently the most often mentioned flow activity around the word", the exhortation - to librarian, parent and teacher - is consistent. Let children read what they want to read. Be prepared to accept as real reading any reading, whether it be series fiction, magazine or instruction manual. Because it is only by enjoying reading that children will amass those thousands and thousands of hours of reading experience necessary to become properly fluent.

And long live the daily slot in the school day for free-choice reading.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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