It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a child in possession of the ability to read must be in want of a good book. In schools across the UK, teachers work tirelessly to give the gift of reading to children, but how many of our young minds are liberated to relish reading for pleasure? As a child, I often had my head in a book. When my eyes remained fixated on the words and refused to look up at the eyes peering over me, some considered it unsociable – little did they know that I was too busy meeting a wealth of more interesting people.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 edition of UKEdMagazine
Now, some thirty years later, I have become a self-confessed Book Taster. I exert my right to take a gulp of the first page of a new book, allow the images to swirl inside me before choosing whether to spit it out and pick up a different one or consume every chapter. There are too many wonderful titles filling our bookshops and libraries to waste my time on roads I don’t want to travel. Sadly, I am observing children being stripped of these same rights as readers to make way for the bulldozer of testing and the constant need to justify progress to people who would never themselves cope with such an intrusive approach to reading.
There are not many pre-schoolers who don’t enjoy turning the pages of a book; occasionally the pages become torn, sometimes they’re upside down and often they’re wet from the excited drooling and yet somehow these same children go through our schooling and become a generation that doesn’t read. Of course it is undeniable that without being taught how to read, children can’t enjoy books and this is why the approach to teaching reading in schools is so crucial. Many of my colleagues in primary schools have asserted that teaching reading in today’s classroom has become soul destroying but for some children, the only possibility of ever tasting the joy of reading will be in those very rooms. Most adults will be able to recount a fond memory of reading from their childhood. For me, it was a year 6 teacher Mr Kavanagh, who brought the BFG to life with his voice and energy. During break he would beaver away creating beautiful illustrations on the chalkboard ready for us to marvel at when we returned. Then followed a stomach dropping moment when he closed the book mid-chapter, forcing me to rush home and read ahead from my own copy all the time taking pleasure at the thought that I could live the events all over again at school! Regrettably, this level of creativity where reading does not directly lead to writing about reading and having it assessed and graded, leads to fear. We have ended up with an education system where creativity is synonymous with lack of rigour. If it is difficult to measure, and reading for pleasure falls into this category, its impact is not valued and paradoxically, the consequence of the relentless pressure to justify our worth as teachers is that we sacrifice the one thing that makes us worthy – our role in promoting reading for pleasure.
I am yet to find reading for pleasure defined so eloquently and compassionately as I have found in Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader published by Walker Books Ltd. The rights which are succinctly described in the last 26 pages of the book and beautifully illustrated by Quentin Blake in a poster version are:
- The Right Not to Read
- The Right to Skip
- The Right Not to Finish a Book
- The Right to Read It Again
- The Right to Read Anything
- The Right to Mistake a Book for Real Life (A Textually Transmitted Disease)
- The Right to Read Anywhere
- The Right to Dip In
- The Right to Read Out Loud
- The Right to Be Quiet
So much of what we do in our schools, undermines these rights. I agree that a certain amount of measuring needs to take place to identify readers who are struggling in comparison with their peers – we can’t remain under the delusion that by some incredible magic, they will just catch up. We must teach children to read well and more importantly we must teach them to find the pleasure in reading, but it will take more than a commercially sought reading programme to destroy the reading ‘apartheid’ that Michael Morpurgo, former children’s laureate, has recently spoken about. Where are the teachers who sit at their desks enjoying a good book, laughing uncontrollably as students walk into the classroom? Such teachers are overwhelmed with assessment and too exhausted to sit back and enjoy a book. Where is the curriculum that allows children to read a book without interruption, question or dissection? Such a curriculum has been drowned by one where unmanageable content forces teachers to reduce great works of art to key extracts to teach alongside pre-approved interpretations.
How can reading possibly be enjoyable under such conditions? Don’t get me wrong, I have seen children thrive on reading programmes and schemes. I have witnessed children take online tests to check their comprehension and leap for joy when they get a new high score or make it on the class leader board. As pleasurable as it is for a child to feel a sense of achievement as they read their way through prescribed lists matched to their diagnostic reading report and take tests that prove their progress, this is not reading for pleasure.
Undeniably the programmes give children the opportunity to gain immediate, honest and accurate feedback. They serve a different purpose and are founded on an effective approach to learning. But we have to stop pretending that this will churn out a nation of children who read for pleasure. Such reading programmes do not allow children to enjoy their rights as a reader and if we continue to quash the autonomy of readers then we must accept that there is little hope of coming out of the reading recession with an incoming generation who will love books.
Geeta Patel is an Assistant Headteacher (Director of Teaching and Professional Development) at Mount Grace School in Hertfordshire. Geeta completed a degree in English and Education at the University of Cambridge followed by an MA and a PGCE. She leads insightful training on leadership and pedagogy but her first passion will always be as English teacher. Contact her via twitter @Mrs_Geeta_Patel @MGSecondary.