I am patiently waiting for Bod7 to become gripped by reading in that all-consuming can’t-think-about-anything-else way…
She can read fluently – it all clicked into place last summer before her 7th birthday (so I suppose she is what could be termed a “free-reader”) and she loves books with a passion, leafing through piles and piles of them every night at bedtime, reading stories to her little sister, and whenever the house goes ominously quiet (you know that strange settled silence when you wonder what on earth is going on out there?) and I tiptoe around to investigate, I often find her curled up with a book. But she is predominantly engrossed in the pictures, perhaps reading some of the words, and although she has read the odd book cover-to-cover, I’m waiting for that magic moment when she is hooked in, when she falls head over heels into a story and we “lose” her completely into the magical world of a book. A bit like Alice falling down the hole….
I know it will happen. Soon, probably. I have to keep reminding myself that she is only 7 (it’s easy to forget this – it sometimes feels like she was born “grown-up”!) but I guess I am keen for this aha! moment to occur because she just loves stories and her enthusiasm for narrative is boundless. She lives and breathes stories in the same way she lives and breathes our projects – costumes are created, props are collected, the narrative of the moment pervades in all aspects of her play – she “becomes” the characters, spending hours and hours in a happy fantasy world, playing out and embellishing the stories in her head. Narrative seems to be thing that “sparks” her, that lights her up inside. And so I want the world of books to become her oyster – and all the magic it contains to be at her fingertips.
I recognise that any impatience here is my issue. Bod7 really isn’t bothered. And so I wait patiently in the wings…and watch…and in the meantime surround her with books….
I myself was a fairly “late” reader, at least in UK terms where it is standard to start to teach reading skills in mainstream settings from preschool onwards. (On the continent and in Steiner schools, children are not introduced to more formal, structured literacy lessons until they are deemed ready at around 6/7 years old and this “later” introduction does not impact on the development of literacy skills in any way. Quite the reverse in fact. Of course, every child is different – you have to go with their flow and if they are interested, run with it!) I can remember not being able to read. I remember dreading reading to my teacher in Year 2 (so I must have been 6 or 7), I remember seeing a fabulous picture in my reading book of donkeys going loopy on a beach, kicking over picnics and rampaging across sandcastles, and I looked at the large print words at the bottom of the page and thought “those few words can’t possibly tell all there is to say about this picture”. So I embarked upon a long, complicated and dramatic story about these anarchic donkeys. To give my teacher her dues, she let me waffle on and on, before she turned to me sternly and said “but that’s not what’s written here Cathy”. So I screwed up my brain and set to work deciphering these dull black squiggles. It was a disappointment and not worth the effort – my original assessment of the page was accurate. I can also remember the summer just after I turned 7 when reading clicked into place for me and from that magic moment onwards I never looked back. From being able to read very little at all, I went straight through the entire works of Louisa May Alcott several times over and then my mum handed me Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen when I was about 9 and away I went, devouring classics as fast as I could…thus my love of 19th and early 20th century literature was born. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it matters not what age you are when you learn to read, its the passion for it that counts, and I worry that pushing children too early into skills they are not yet ready for actually turns them off.
I’m not so much a book worm as a gobbler. I tend to inhale them. I am also blessed with a shockingly bad memory which means I can read books over and over again because I always forget what happens (great value for money). I feel lost without a book and go everywhere with one. I wouldn’t countenance carrying a bag that couldn’t hold a book. I want my children to experience and love that same wondrous feeling of total immersion, thrilling escapism and even the sense of loss and bereavement you have when you come to the end of a cracking good yarn.
Learning to read is a transformative and seminal event in a young child’s development. It cannot be forced, in the same way that you cannot force a plant to grow (well you can, but they never look so healthy/taste very good) – you can only provide it with all the necessary elements and watch…and wait…
So how to foster a love of books in your home?
Looking around I think the best thing you can do is surround them with books. Our house resembles a library to some degree (but not an organised one 😉 no Dewey Decimal system in operation 🙂 ). I’m counting on the simple process of osmosis getting to work here. There are books in every single room, piled upon every available flat surface. They are literally everywhere. And they breed… be warned…
Books are a fabulous go-to reference point. Make them what you reach for when you need to know the answer for something. Make them the prop of your everyday life. If your books fail you then buy more books (or ask Google!).
I think it’s always important to lead by example, and in this case it’s very easy for me (not like my “don’t shout” thing – hmmm, seriously rubbish at that 😉 ). I always have a book, or a few, on the go and I talk about what I’m reading with the girls. We discuss the plot, characters, language, themes, author and why I’m reading it. We often watch a dramatisation of a novel together if we can, which makes a more challenging book more accessible to them and helps them to understand what I’m whiffling on about. Fortunately my preferred genre (broadly termed “classics”) is largely child-friendly, sometimes involving some mild tension of the “will he/won’t he ask her to marry him” kind, with perhaps a bit of existential angst thrown in for good measure. It’s good for children to see you engrossed in a book, to “have-to-get-to-the-end-of-the-chapter” before you can do anything else, and talking about books together helps children develop and apply essential critical thinking skills to what they read. A bit like tasting the flavours in your food rather than just wolfing it down.
Family reading is a marvellous way to nurture a love of reading and build reading into everyday life. Not having a TV means that this is our evening entertainment. We read together every night and often during mealtimes. We form a family wishlist of books we want to read and steadily work our way through them. As we read we discuss at length the plot, language, characters and whatever else comes up (sometimes it’s quite random). Family reading is a special event even though it occurs daily, it’s a sort of sacred time, usually accompanied by hot chocolate, tea, biscuits and more chocolate. There is general uproar if for some reason the next chapter doesn’t get read one evening and the clamour suggests that the girls see me reading them a story as a right, not a privilege, as essential to them as me providing regular meals. Whilst this can feel a bit overwhelming for me, the reader, it is, on reflection, probably how things should be. Books after all are soul-food.
Read to children from dot and introduce them to chapter books early – I think we greatly underestimate young children’s comprehension and their ability to maintain attention throughout a chapter book with a more complex story line and few, or no, pictures. I started reading chapter books to the girls around the age of 3, starting with Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair series. These are a great introduction to extended stories – chapters are short, and each chapter contains a simple, exciting adventure that makes up part of a flowing plot. Plus they’re full of pixies, elves, goblins and wizards. What more could anyone want?
Enjoy the sensory elements of books – talk about how they smell and feel in your hands, the weight, the texture of the paper, the colour, the illustrations, the type of print. Reading is a whole body experience which children will naturally tap into – encourage them to enjoy it. And whilst we’re on that subject, fill your house with comfy sofas, cosy nooks, armchairs and cushions, blankets and throws – make reading easy by making it an inviting experience.
Give books as gifts. Make them special and meaningful. Not a birthday or Christmas or Easter goes by without a pile of “new” books entering the house (I say “new” because I generally buy books second-hand, I like to give them a new lease of life and rescue them from places to save them from the pulping machine. This makes me feel like a superhero and it’s greener, and cheaper too). There is nothing so wonderful as a book given as a gift – to expand the mind and enrich the soul!
Above all it is imperative to enjoy reading – not to turn it into a tedious chore, a thing to be ticked off a list, a painful process imbued with the fear of failure and inadequacy. Recently a dear friend told me about the way in which reading is “encouraged” at her child’s school – children are required to read to their parents 5 times a week, and parents are asked to sign off each session. If a child does not have the necessary 5 signatures a week then they miss out on a playtime. I genuinely cannot see how punishing children by taking away much needed playtime is going to nurture a deep and lasting love of reading. Moreover, this seems to me to be more of a test of the parent’s organisational skills than promotion of a child’s reading ability. It is rare to find someone who ends up loving what they are forced or manipulated into doing. Introducing an element of fear, consequence or competition takes away the joy and the magic, reduces a pleasure to a task, perhaps even an ordeal.
For books hold a kind of magic. They can be a tremendous source of wonder, solace and inspiration. They can take you on journeys beyond your wildest dreams…
And on that note, I’m off to read my book 😉