Turning over a new leaf

Getting children to learn to love reading is crucial, although opinions as to how to achieve this have always been divided. However, most educationalists now agree that one factor is needed - fun.
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The message comes loud and clear: "Reading is fun." On posters, in bookshops, in libraries, on classroom walls: "Read Me", "Books are for everyone", "Reading is the best ever", "Reading is fundamental".

But is reading really fun for all children? A colleague recently reported an incident where schoolchildren were taken to choose a book at a bookshop, as part of a very well-intentioned book sharing initiative. Most of the children began to browse happily enough, but a small group hung back, reluctant to look along the shelves. "Do I have to choose a book?" said one. Others added that they would much sooner have a toy instead.

Helping children to a love of reading is, of course, a great deal more complicated than simply putting a glossy new book into their hands. Books may actually be threatening to some children. They may feel unwelcome and pressurising, especially when they carry no real significance in the child's life outside the classroom. Reading, for many children, is not fun because they find it an effort, or a struggle. Reading, after all, is difficult.

The activity of reading generates expectations of, and pressures on, children both at home and at school. At school, the national literacy strategy and league tables of test results combine to push children harder than ever - arguably, a good thing in terms of their future literacy scores, but not an approach that necessarily keeps their enjoyment to the fore.

"Reading seems to be becoming a task and a toil, rather than something that is so much fun, you can't help but read," says Annabelle Dixon, a visiting scholar at Cambridge University faculty of education and a former primary teacher. "I'm very conscious that many children struggle to get to a certain level in their reading; but when they do get there, instead of being able to consolidate and feel comfortable with that - which is where the enjoyment comes in - they are pushed on to a new, harder book."

The danger of the new literacy hour, says Elaine Millard, in Sheffield University's education department, is that it can stop teachers from attending to the pleasures of reading. "Because it is quite prescriptive, teachers are looking for books which illustrate particular grammatical points; and I've heard reports of them spending too much time on quite limited stories as a result."

Parents, too, can be over-zealous in their choice of aspirational reading for their children, and be very dismissive of books a child chooses to read because they are "too easy".

My local bookshop on a Saturday afternoon pulsates with eager parents attempting to choose books with or for their children in an atmosphere of testing frenzy. "Let's see if we can find a book which has some of your recent spellings in it," one mother chides her daughter. And when a small boy asks his parents to buy him a densely-written book about aliens, they actually stand over him and make him read the first paragraph out loud, before they'd buy him the book.

The daily home plod through pages of the school reading book is, all too frequently, not an occasion for fun, either. Recent research by Exeter University found that parents tend to concentrate on getting their children to decode the words on the page unaided, rather than trying to enjoy the book with them, by talking about the story and pictures, explaining words or phrases, guessing what might happen next.

Reading at home should be much more than parents' dutiful extension of what they think happens in school, if children are to find reading relevant to their lives, says Keith Topping, at the centre for paired learning in Dundee University's psychology department, schools should place more value on a wider range of literacy sources in homes and communities, he says; not just storybooks, but papers, magazines, manuals and other kinds of environmental print.

Seeing other people reading is crucial in giving children the idea that reading might be worthwhile. Even in homes that are well supplied with books it might be rare for a child to see an adult actually relaxing with one. An older sibling prostrate on the sofa and glued to a book can be an excellent model; so can a teacher, absorbed in a book of her own, while her class reads quietly.

Becoming "a reader" is, in many ways, a much harder and more critical step than those early days of learning to read, when the child decodes words on the page, c-a-t spells cat. But Alan Davies, national director of THRASS (Teaching Handwriting. Reading and Spelling Skills), argues, however, that inadequate decoding skills - the result of poor phonics teaching, in his view - play a big part in giving a child the sense, early on, that reading is not fun, because they find it too difficult to get the words right. "The more successful they are at it, the more they enjoy it - and so do their parents," he says.

Around the age of seven, most children have become reasonably adept at decoding, but need to find interesting reading material to take them on. This is the age when many boys, in particular, begin to lose interest in stories. (A parent still reading aloud to them at this age... something meaty and ambitious, The Hobbit, for instance may make a considerable difference here.) Clearly, a wide range of books is important at this stage, and Keith Topping says that schools need more "low cost, low readability" non-fiction.

Others, however, challenge the view that fiction is over-emphasised in school. "Stories foster the imagination, and mustn't be given up," says Jeremy Long, teacher and author of the Penguin plays for paired reading, and that they need more funny books that reflect their own witty inventiveness with language, with more use of drama and dialogue.

"One of the best reasons for a child to read is that they find it amusing, and will amuse others when they read it out. I think that that's vastly underestimated," he says.

Children also need to be given a fairly free rein in their reading choices, at home and at school - whether they opt for "easy" books, or books that interest them but are, technically, beyond them. A pilot scheme in 13 Scottish schools is currently experimenting with a programme where seven- year-olds choose books of high interest to them to read with 10-year-olds, and are thereby not confined to the books that they can decode in isolation.

But since only a small minority of today's children are likely to become adults who read novels and the like for pleasure, the question could be asked: are we wasting time and energy insisting how much fun it is?

The Gradgrindian answer is, of course, that these children must all be able to read well if they are to secure future jobs.

Making reading "fun" for all is probably the only way to persuade children to chomp their way through sufficient texts to become proficient readers - a conspiracy, of sorts, in which we all must collude. What those reading posters are really saying to our children is: "You'd better have some fun now, or else."

ST EBBE'S CHILDREN HAVE THE FINAL WORD

Gilly, five: "I find reading very fun. It's not difficult. I like reading all those words, and if I can't read something I just break it up into bits, and then I can read it.

"At home I read to my mum and dad. I like Frog and Toad books, and I like fairy stories, like `The Shoemakers and the Elves'."

Koyrool, six: "Sometimes I like books. Sometimes it's easy books, sometimes it's hard books. Sometimes I know the word, sometimes I don't. When I don't, I can't read and I change the books.

"I like easy books, like The Play Dragon. I like reading with my mum. She gets cross when I don't read to her. Sometimes I don't want to read to her, because I want to do something else. Reading is hard at school. Hard books."

Sylvie-Anne, eight: "I like books a lot. I can read up to one book in a day, sometimes I read three books at a time. I like reading mystery books and adventure stories and funny books. Most of the books I'm reading now my brother read when he was 11. I learnt to read when I was about three; my dad taught me. I read usually after school and on Saturday, all the time basically."

Joe, nine: "Some of the time reading is fun - except when you're young and there's something you don't understand. It gets really annoying if you don't know what's happening and you have to keep going back. As you get older, because you know more things it helps you understand what you're reading.

"I like books like The Hobbit. That's quite a hard book, but I have read it. I like The Lord of the Rings, but I haven't read it all; it's quite hard with lots of complicated words. If I don't know a word I try a few times and then I just go on.

"I read to myself most of the time. I like that better because it's nice to feel more independent. I read when there's nothing on TV, or if I don't have to practise spellings."

Nick, six: "I like fact books and funny stories. I don't like other storybooks so much - they're just made-up things.

"I'm supposed to read to my mum, but sometimes I think up an excuse, like I fell over and hurt my hand and can't hold the book. It's because she makes me read books I don't want to read.

"I liked Holly and Skyboard and I read it twice. It took me three days to read a chapter, and when I read it again it took half a minute.

"I did group reading at school today; you've got to wait until other people have read, and it takes ages because hardly anybody else knows the words."

Gloria, seven: "I like books which tell you about things, like Fact Finders. I like stories about people and animals and stuff. It's fun when there are funny words, and cartoons. At school it can be boring when books just have normal language and no funny words."

Diana Hinds

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