Throw the book at yourself

2nd December 2016 at 00:00
'A teacher's passion for reading will reflect in their teaching of reading'
We tell students to read more, but how much reading do you do yourself? Assistant head Aidan Severs urges book-shy teachers to set an example by making an effort to read both children’s and adult literature

Once upon a time, there lived a boy who loved to read: his imagination was filled with smugglers, chocolate factories, detectives, undiscovered realms and magic. But as time went by, his world changed and the books that once thrilled him lay forgotten, gathering dust.

As he got older, he had his own adventures, some even as exciting as the ones he used to read about. He forgot about books, but somewhere deep inside, ready to be rekindled, remained his love of stories.

The spark he needed was an abrupt realisation: as a teacher, it was ridiculous that for all these years he’d barely touched a book, while telling children how important it was to read. He felt like a hypocrite.

That boy, who grew into a teacher, was – of course – me.

It is teachers, the national curriculum states, who should promote wider reading and encourage pupils to read for pleasure. It also says that “through reading in particular, pupils have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually. Literature, especially, plays a key role in such development.”

Enthusiasm can be contagious

If teachers aren’t developing themselves in these ways, how can they expect to guide their pupils likewise?

And if it is true that enthusiasm for one’s subject is contagious and motivates pupils to learn, and that the ability to read is the gateway to all learning, then all teachers should be enthusiastic readers. A teacher’s passion for reading will reflect in their teaching of reading. Even a teacher who is not responsible for teaching reading, but who is committed at least to reading around their own subject, will be informed and enthused in their teaching of, say, science.

If teachers aren’t developing themselves in these ways, how can they guide their pupils?

There’s evidence to back these theories up. United Kingdom Literacy Association research shows that children become drawn into reading when teachers who read become readers who teach. The same research also highlights that teachers who engage with children’s literature are more effective in their teaching of reading.

So why don’t we do it more? Some teachers will argue that they do read: they pre-read texts that they teach to their classes. But is it enough to have such a limited experience of books for children? Adults find common ground with others who have read the same, or similar, books. By reading children’s books – a broad range of books, not just course texts – teachers can experience similar relationships with children.

By reading broadly, teachers are also better placed to select texts based on the needs and interests of the children in their class. JK Rowling has said that “if you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book”. Teachers who are widely read have more chance of helping children to find the right book and have more chance of drawing children into reading.

If the idea of reading children’s books is off-putting to you, it is worth remembering what CS Lewis said: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Adults can, and will, enjoy reading good children’s literature.

You might argue that you do not have the time. But add up the minutes you spend on social media or browsing the internet and you will suddenly find time available – if you choose to make it available.

Reading can be a struggle

It should not just be children’s books that you are reading. Teachers should also read for their own enjoyment, at their own level. It makes them into better readers, providing deep insight into what books are like: the varying ways they are narrated, the different plot types, the similarities between texts, the complexities of older texts, the devices used by authors.

Having a continually evolving and growing understanding of what books are like is essential if teachers want to help children to gain meaningful understanding of a variety of texts. If teachers aren’t readers, then they will struggle to model what it is like to be a reader. They will find it difficult to identify why an author has chosen a particular word, or why the narrator has left certain pieces of key information out.

They will also struggle to remember quite how difficult a process reading – and reading comprehension – really is. If I hadn’t rekindled my own love for it and set about reading widely, I wouldn’t have had sufficient understanding of the techniques used by authors, even writers of children’s literature, to convey meaning. If teachers can’t model reading owing to a lack of their own experience, are they really teaching reading?

By skimping on one’s literary intake, no matter how much you push for the children to enjoy it, no matter how well you “do the voices”, no matter how Pinterest-worthy your book corner is, you will struggle to effectively teach reading.

If you wouldn’t currently consider yourself a reader, why not set yourself a challenge? I’m an all-or-nothing type of guy, so I went for 50 books in one year (I’m on track to achieve it). But you might prefer to be more realistic – don’t aim to read too many, too soon, or don’t aim to read the heavier, more archaic classics just yet.

I’m an all-or-nothing type of guy, so I went for 50 books in one year

First and foremost, you should read for you – not even so you’ll become a better teacher and definitely not so you can feel good about having ploughed your way through the James Joyce that everyone says is “an absolute must read”.

Have a look at your bookshelves – what have you been meaning to read? Spend an afternoon in a musty bookshop picking out a few titles that pique your interest. Ask others for their recommendations.

Make reading social. Challenge each other, join a book group, set up a book group. Using the Goodreads app is a great way to track your achievements, see what your friends are reading and receive recommendations.

Remember what Mark Twain said: “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”

Aidan Severs is assistant vice-principal at Dixons Manningham Primary School in Bradford

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