When I was a child I always had my nose in a book. Mum was an English teacher and our house was full of classics. Dad liked a range of adventure and spy novels so there was plenty to choose from. My earliest memory of reading was Enid Blyton and I yearned to be one of the Famous Five and picnic on Kirren Island! I also loved her Secret books especially Kiki the parrot who would scare off villains by mimicking the sound of a steam train!
That is the great thing about childhood books – they stay with you forever and you never forget plots or characters. As a teacher of many years standing I have always focused on trying to imbue children of all ages with a love of books. I have always loved fairy and traditional tales and there is something to appeal to both boys and girls. There have been moves to provide sanitised versions but it is the dark elements which children are drawn to and which play on the imagination. Stories of wicked witches, good fairies, dark forests, princes and princesses are entrancing and memorable and even the most reluctant reader is drawn into these magical worlds; these stories arose from the oral traditions where tales were passed from one generation to another and this is a vital component of encouraging a love of books. All cultures have their own wonderful versions and these provide a rich tapestry which transcends gender, ethnicity and status and fosters universal understanding of our place in the world. It is a great equaliser!
I trained to be an early years’ teacher and that oral tradition has been firmly embedded in my classrooms. There is a misconception (to my mind at least) that boys are only motivated to read if they have their ‘interests’ catered for, such as football, and that they will not respond well to anything else that initially looks ‘boring’. It is the job of the teacher to transmit passion and enthusiasm for a range of texts and if that job is done well then boys and girls will each get the same sense of satisfaction which comes from positive engagement with the reading material. Role playing enhances story telling and allows children to rehearse orally and explore scenes and characters, often involving role reversal eg boys taking on girls’ parts and vice versa; this is very important in an age where gender is more fluid and the old stereotypes are being dismantled, so different from my own childhood in the sixties when Enid Blyton was popular but about to be discredited for racist and sexist overtones which sadly pervaded her work. As teachers we are rightly expected to challenge sterotypes but we can still have rollicking good tales which motivate boys and girls equally.
However I think it is pointless to pretend that these stereotypes do not exist and we have to have strategies for engagement. At the PRU I taught boys (and yes excludees are mainly boys- a stereotype that we cannot ignore) who often struggled with reading because behaviour and/or underlying SEND was a barrier to learning. In one mixed Y5/6 class I taught the average reading age was 5 to 6 years. It was the class novel which fired up the kids’ imaginations. First we shared Cirques du Freaks, and yes I chose it for its subject matter which I hoped the boys would like- monsters and vampires! However the (female) staff also loved it and couldn’t wait for the next instalment! One boy with SEND (undiagnosed dyslexia we discovered) absolutely blossomed! He was reading and spelling cvc words but could talk about and discuss that book in depth and detail! He really came to life and it had a positive effect on his attitude to reading and his actual reading; he came on in leaps and bounds! His mum was delighted and he asked for the whole set of books for Christmas. He returned to his mainstream school and never looked back; this literally was life changing for him!
The next term I nervously decided to try the Railway Children, linking in to our history topic, prepared to ditch it if the boys weren’t engaged. What a triumph! Streetwise boys who were fighting and spray painting buildings were totally immersed in this bygone age. They were all keen to read aloud, with help, and wanted to look up unfamiliar words even though they could not read or spell them! They also wanted to watch the film and see the characters brought to life in a medium which reinforces the oral tradition. They enjoyed hot seating and role playing various characters and exploring motives and feelings; the key to engagement was the use of different strategies and activities to enrich the text and bring it to life. This is where the teacher can weave his or her magic to make it happen!
We all need to be passionate about reading; I am passionate because I have seen how it changes lives and saves lives; it also stays with us all our lives. Please read!