James Clements is the director of ShakespeareandMore.com. He is the author of Building an Outstanding Reading School, a report about creating a strong reading culture in a school. James will be leading a practical session looking at how teachers can support children to access classic texts at OUP’s 2016 English Conference For the Love of Reading: Passing on the Passion
Learning to read is one of the most important gifts we can give children.
Once they can turn the little squiggles on the page into sounds and those sounds into ideas, children have access to new concepts and knowledge beyond their current experience. Reading allows them to explore new worlds, not to mention the lifetime of joy that being a reader brings. As the 2014 National Curriculum puts it, in a rare moment of poetry amongst the lists of grammatical features to be learnt: ‘reading opens up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for curious young minds’.
Helping children to develop the desire to read can be difficult: there have never been so many things competing with reading for children’s time and if reading isn’t something that happens at home then it can be difficult for school to fill the void. But many schools do just this. My job takes me to visit wonderful schools right across the country that work hard to build a reading culture, teaching everyone to read and doing remarkable things to encourage children to read. When I ask them why, the answer is always the same: reading is too important for them not to devote their time and energy to making it successful.
Being a reader and choosing to read in their own time can make a huge difference to children. Its effect on achievement isn’t confined to English, it extends right across the curriculum. In fact, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development claims that: ‘developing a love of reading can be more important for a child’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic background.’ Unlocking the world of books can have a profound influence on children’s future lives. Every child deserves the chance to become a reader, and if for many children that won’t come from home, it has to be schools that are the driving force.
But once children can read and they’ve got to the point where they choose to read, does it matter what they read?
I’m hugely sympathetic to the school of thought that says ‘no, it doesn’t matter at all’. We live in a golden age of children’s publishing where every year hundreds of books are published that appeal to children. I was a teacher at an inner-city primary school for a long time, and I was always delighted when children would tell me excitedly about the book they were reading or when a child who might not choose to read at home would devour all of the books in a series at school because they were funny or exciting, or happened to feature a front cover with a space minotaur goring someone.
But I think we can do more. I believe that there are two aspects to enjoying reading. There is one aspect where a child reads as many monster or football or magical princess books as they can and we make time in the school day for them to do that because we know it probably won’t happen at home. Once a child can read, we need to give them time and space to do just that, to make their own choices and follow their own interests. Providing children with a wide choice of books and giving them the time to read them are two of the easiest things we can do in schools to create the next generation of readers.
If that leads to Tom in 4B collecting and reading books that are instantly exciting – books about robots and monsters and aliens that he wants to pick up and read because of their shiny covers – so be it. The importance of texts that children want to read should never be underestimated. But I don’t think that’s the whole story to enjoying reading.
In schools, we have a responsibility to dig beneath the surface and explore a second aspect – the type of enjoyment that comes from mastering something challenging. Every child should have the opportunity to experience the sense of achievement that comes when the seemingly incomprehensible suddenly swims into focus.
If we want children to love reading beyond a superficial level, then we have to give them access to the very best books and language possible. We need to introduce them to Shakespeare and other ‘classics’ before their attitudes harden and their minds close. Every child should have the opportunity to read and study both the great works of children’s literature and also some of the wonderful fiction written for children today. Children should encounter books that perhaps they wouldn’t choose to read themselves, books that they might struggle to access on their own, texts that introduce them to great ideas and take them beyond their current life experience. I think a good primary school English curriculum should give children the chance to be swept along by the drama of the Odyssey and the Iliad; to discover the brilliance of Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar and argue about who is responsible for King Duncan’s death in Macbeth; to set sail on the Hispaniola or venture into the Wild Wood.
Children should have time to think and talk and argue about great books and the complex ideas they contain, developing the language of literature and also, I hope, a genuine love for books.
But for most children, this won’t happen on its own. They’ll need our help.
Building the Next Generation of Readers (Part 2)
The ideas discussed at James’ session will be compiled and shared after the conference on 16th June.
Find out more and book your place: www.oxfordprimary.co.uk/passingonthepassion