When I was a child, I loved reading. It was escape, entertainment, adventure and a way of finding out things about what really interested me that day. Its only competition for my attention was sport and Children’s Hour. However, this, as my sons so sensitively point out, was shortly after the expiration of the last pterosaur and times have changed, changed utterly.
For today’s child, digital media meet all the above requirements and, by and large, in a far more exciting and accessible way. Today, a child doesn’t merely read a story but can become part of it, play the lead role and personally affect twists and turns in the plot. Where I read words and looked at pictures of pyramids, they are able to take virtual reality tours of their passages and chambers. Never has reading had so much and such serious competition.
However, the latest trends in book sales for books in the UK tell a very interesting and truly extraordinary story. Yes, sales of books continue to decline almost across the genre board – except, that is, in one very significant area – children’s books. Sales of both children’s fiction and non-fiction are on the rise – particularly the latter which is growing, year on year, by a whopping 35 per cent.
The message is clear – the choice of popular fiction and non-fiction has never been greater. So, how do we encourage children to take full advantage of this new literary cornucopia? How do we encourage them to read?
According to Kathryn Bender, Head of Nursery and pre-prep at Saint Ronan’s School near Hawkhurst, it’s a matter of engagement. She stresses that an experienced reader reading to children will have them captivated and engrossed in the story and this, in turn, will lead to their wanting to read for themselves.
“Children love the pictures and feel of books and the familiarity of re-reading much-loved stories,” she says. “My class once wrote to Roald Dahl and he wrote back, ‘If when you are young you read just one book that is so funny and exciting that you fall in love with it then there is a good chance that this little love affair with a single book will convince you that reading is terrific fun.'”
Saint Ronan’s Deputy Head, Matthew Brian, stresses that the teaching of reading and phonics has developed enormously since parents were learning and it’s always worth talking to teachers about the way in which children learn at school. “What is essential is to prioritise reading and make it a daily event wherever possible,” he says. “The reinforcement at home will make everything come together more quickly in the early days.
“Just as children want to take their birthday present and play with their parents – not be left by themselves with only their imagination for company – so with reading it needs to be a shared experience. Laughing together, being excited about what comes next – these are bonding opportunities not to be missed,” says Matthew.
Fiona Booth, Librarian at Dulwich Prep, near Cranbrook, notes that if there is one technological change that she would highlight as being a very positive influence on children’s reading, it would be the ability to download audiobooks. “All children can listen to stories that challenge them beyond their reading ability and listening can foster a love of stories,” she says. “Audiobooks are the next best thing to a parent who is prepared endlessly to read aloud.”
She stresses that developing a love of reading is vital. “According to UNESCO, the biggest single indicator of whether a child is going to thrive at school and in work is whether or not that child reads for pleasure,” she says. “Reading fiction enables children to imagine and identify with lives and situations beyond the boundaries of their own experience. It is both a relaxing escape from a demanding world and a means by which the growing child can determine what sort of person they are and want to be,” she says.
Cathy Morrison, the Librarian at Sackville School in Hildenborough underlines this importance. “Reading for pleasure and writing is fundamental to educational success as well as key to developing children’s imagination and creativity,” she says but admits that to many children used to digital devices, books can seem old-fashioned and dull and that it’s simply not enough to point them at the bookshelves and hope they’ll engage.
Accordingly, the school adopts a range of different strategies from author visits to book-jacket designing, film-trailer making, encouragement to enter creative writing competitions and visits to literary festivals.
Reading can be a pleasure in itself. It is also, despite all the competition, the primary key to the exchange of knowledge, ideas and experiences. But, perhaps greatest of all, it develops a child’s ability to express themselves verbally or on the blank page – more effectively than any number of spelling tests or essay writing. A love of reading is one of the greatest gifts any school or parent can bestow.
- words: John Graham Hart
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