Thursday, 1 July 2010

You should have been there, Mr Gove

How do you get children to enjoy reading? How do you encourage non-readers to pick up a book, when there are so many other cool things that they’d prefer to do?

This year, the London borough of Haringey, where I live, has been running all kinds of interesting schemes in schools to address this question. The Building Reading Communities programme kicked off with a launch at the Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham, with authors and musicians to entertain the children.

Then different schools tried all sorts of projects to enthuse the children in their schools and get them reading. This week they held an event bringing teachers, librarians and children from all the participating schools together to hear about each other’s experiences. I can honestly say it was one of the most inspiring events I’ve ever attended.

Children talked about buddy schemes, museum visits, designing a book corner for the classroom. They’d had author visits, and, on World Book Day, been to places all over the borough to have stories read to them - a restaurant, a fire station, Alexandra Palace. As the picture shows, some children had story time on a bus.

Some children had been to the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green and been allowed to choose two free books. One boy had picked the biggest, thickest books he could find - ‘and then he read every word,’ said his teacher ‘And now he’s written 34 chapters of his own book.’

The author Jonny Zucker – we’d never met, but we share a publisher and we’d had a long chat on the phone once and he felt like an old friend – was compere, and he’d visited every school but one during the year. Jonny’s a star at author visits, for not only does he have many great books to talk about (Striker Boy is the latest) but he also does magic tricks. Time and time again in the presentations, kids talked about the impact that meeting Jonny had on them. He’d made them see that reading was fun…exciting…interesting. He inspired them. He was one of their favourite authors. If anyone doubts the worth of author visits to schools, they should ask Haringey schoolchildren about Jonny Zucker. To them, he's a superstar.

I wasn’t there as an author, but as a volunteer. My daughter’s school decided to participate by asking parents to come in and meet each week with Y7 pupils who had fallen behind with their reading. I’m sure other mums put themselves forward out of the goodness of their hearts. I, rather selfishly, thought it’d be fascinating for a writer to spend time with kids who don’t like to read.

The two boys that I worked with, F and M, were great, and I did learn a lot from working with them. I was asked to speak about my experiences at the Haringey event, and I told them about the first time I met with F, and how I could see from his face that he wasn’t impressed when we started off with an ‘easy read’. I didn’t blame him. The plot was so transparent that we could see the denouement coming by the end of chapter two.

When we talked, it was clear that the problem lay with the gap between the books that he enjoyed - Antony Horowitz, Mal Peet, Justin Somper - and his actual reading level as assessed by the school. He was bored and frustrated when expected to read at his ‘level’, and we were much more successful when we read the books that he liked and trying to work out how to solve the problems that he had.

Three things were helpful – you could call them the three P’s. Practice was essential - F is a skateboarder and a footballer, so I compared reading to learning new skating skills. Without practice, it doesn’t happen. Or, to take a footballing analogy, if Cesc Fabregas didn’t bother to train he’d soon find himself out of the team. If you read regularly - perhaps 15 minutes every evening - then you improve your fluency and you give yourself the chance of getting into a story

Once you’re into a story then you might stand a chance of experiencing the pleasure of reading. I spent a lot of time with both my reluctant readers working out what they liked about books, what they enjoyed, what made them want to read a book. M likes funny books, and books which have been made into a film – because then it is easier for him to visualise the story. F enjoys quite complex books and a lot of action and adventure. We spent time just talking about the books we read - what worked, what didn’t, what did we think about the characters, the wordplay? Books are for sharing, and if you know someone’s going to ask you about a book you’ve got an incentive to read it.

The last thing to tackle is the performance aspect of reading aloud. Reading silently to yourself is all very well, but reading aloud has so many potential pitfalls that it can put off even enthusiastic readers. In our sessions we talked about tackling long words, using punctuation to tell you when to pause, and listening to audio books with the text in front of you, to hear how prose should flow. I’d like to see school drama departments get involved in helping children to read out loud. I’d like to see more acknowledgment that reading aloud isn’t the best way to judge reading skills. And I’d like to see more audio books in school libraries.

The event was a huge success. Every child had a story to tell - about the events which had inspired them, about the progress they had made. Some of the pupils had only lived in England for a short time, and to read an English book was a triumph. To top it all we were entertained by an amazingly talented musician and poet, El Crisis, whose voice and performance was spine-chillingly moving.

The room was full and the weather was hot but the children concentrated really well. I wish there had been an extra member of our audience. I wish that Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary had been there. He would have learned so much about how to inspire and educate children.

He would have seen the importance of author visits, of school trips, of school libraries - all threatened by the public spending cuts.

He would have seen the fantastic contribution that a Local Education Authority can make to schools - a contribution that often he doesn’t seem to understand or value.
And he would have seen the creativity and achievement that comes when teachers and pupils are set free from the National Curriculum - something that should not be confined to the 'free' schools that are his pet project.

I was really proud to be part of Haringey's Building Reading Communities programme this year. I hope Mr Gove doesn't make it impossible for the project to continue in the future.


  1. A great post about a wonderful event and I agree wholeheartedly. The number of primary schools with no library is a national scandal. My own son's school amongst them. I became a governor to try to change things but it was just impossible. After two years of banging my head against a wall I resigned. Unfortunately the suburbs need action as much as Haringay in some ways. There may be more money but there's a lot of inertia/apathy and EVERYTHING in schools is (pardon the pun) by the (inspector's) book. If it will impress they'll do it. Books are seem as anachronistic and unecessary in the stampede to become "digital". And don't get me started on reading schemes...

    There, I feel better now :-)

    Brilliant blog!!

  2. Hear hear and well done and thank you for telling us about this. Very inspiring to read about and obviously inspiring to have been part of it, both for adults and children.

  3. A very inspiring post about a fab even! It must have been great to volunteer and be apart of such a cool thing.

  4. What an excellent project. Leicester has Everybody's Reading project running at the moment. I so agree with you. It's vital that all schools receive continuing resources so they can maintain/establish this sort of interest for children in books, stories and reading.

  5. I wish Mr. Gove had been there too!

    A fantastic post, Keren, and sounds like a opportunity both you and the kids.

  6. I am sure Mr. Gove would love your project, (though due to there being *no more money* , much of this may be out of his hands). I used to live in Haringey, and I ended up home educating my daughter because her school, (unfortunately) was not meeting her needs. In the past year Michael Gove has been very supportive of home educators, and our children learn very much as you have described above. Maybe you should write to him personally?

  7. Not really 'out of his hands' Anonymous, he is the one deciding spending priorities - what worries me is that new schools will get money at the expense of existing ones.
    I find home education a fascinating subject - one I'd like to write about some time - but it's not for everyone. I certainly couldn't do it. So we need all our schools to improve and work harder to meet the needs of all.
    A good idea to write to Michael Gove - and actually what I might do is contact my local Lib Dem MP.

  8. Well done Haringey and well done you! Very interesting blog. Thanks!

  9. A truly marvellous post Keren.

    There are worrying times ahead for children's reading, for school libraries, for public libraries.

  10. This is a truly inspiring post. I can't remember not reading. My parents read to me as a child and I loved it. I can't imagine not enjoying reading (although I remember some dubious times at uni..) so anything that finds a way to encourage children to enjoy reading is always a good and worthwhile thing.

  11. "One boy had picked the biggest, thickest books he could find - ‘and then he read every word,’ said his teacher ‘And now he’s written 34 chapters of his own book.’"

    Wow! This is brilliant. And how I wish more schools would organise initiatives like the reading with pupils you talked about. How can anyone be inspired to read unless they know the pleasure it can bring? And how can they know that if no one ever reads to (and with) them?

  12. That's great! Anything that gets kids reading.