Twice weekly I run a library club in a local primary school. The library holds a fair number of picture books in stock, and yet there are a small number that stand out as clear favourites. No matter what topic or activity we’re linking to a book, when it comes to the children picking a random picture book for me to read to them, the same favourites resurface.
And it’s not just in the library. With children I meet in my role as a reading consultant, with my own children at home; they often pick up the same book and read it over and over.
Why are children so set on re-reading? And re-reading everything, sometimes revisiting books they read years ago and that the adults around them deem ‘too easy’ now. Adults don’t seem to revisit books in quite the same way. So what are these children doing – and should we be doing the same?
Re-reading has been shown to improve skills of decoding words, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. In fact, almost all the skills you want children to pick up when they read. In a study for The Reading Teacher (International Literacy Association) in 2014, analysts found that re-reading helps students to develop a deeper understanding of what they have read. In fact, as long ago as 1979, studies for the same organisation found that rereading helps to develop greater accuracy in reading, which when you think about it, is kind of obvious. When children have struggled over a word they didn’t know, the only way they’ll learn it is if they revisit it.
But as we grow older, and our vocabulary increases, what can re-reading do for us? Actually, something extremely important. When we re-read we absorb more of the emotion behind the words – the inference becomes clearer, the resonance stronger.
Adults who read poems seem to re-read more than most of us. It can be very difficult to extract meaning from a poem on first reading. We gather all the different components of the text in our heads – the rhythm or perhaps rhyme, the grammatical constructs, the sparse vocabulary used – often a poem speaks to us first with its rhythm and then in meaning, and then finally in the emotion behind the words.
Even with prose there are many components to pick up on – rhythm matters here too, as does vocabulary, the inference, the meaning of phrases, metaphors. If you’re reading it like a writer, you’ll often revisit a sentence to see the construct – or the dialogue to see how the author crafted it so as to show the character’s attributes.
But readers revisiting whole texts can glean something extra. Cristel Antonia Russell of the American University, Washington explains: “Even though people are already familiar with the stories or the places, re-consuming brings new or renewed appreciation of both the object of consumption and their self. By doing it again, people get more out of it.”
She found the same with revisiting familiar holiday destinations! The emotional depth is stronger the second time around.
Re-reading can be particularly pertinent at different ages. I bet children re-read Horrid Henry differently at age 10 than they do age five, in the same way that Anna Karenina read differently for me at age 17 than it did as a married woman in my thirties, because we often apply our own life experiences to what we read.
A good writer leaves gaps for the reader to fill with their own imagination and their own understanding of character motivations. Each reread, the same reader may bring a different perspective to those hidden gaps, and the book reveals itself as being so much more than it was the first time.
There’s also the pleasure evoked by memories of when you first read a much-loved story. For me, I was sitting in my office at a publishing house with very little to do, contemplating a probable upcoming redundancy when I first read Harry Potter. It was the perfect magical escapism. I’m sure many of you can remember where you first read it.
This also brings huge risk though. Revisiting a much loved book from childhood can be painful if you find that the reread doesn’t have the same impact as when you read it as a child. (For me, the Famous Five was my favourite series as a child – now the books seem a little stilted and dull.)
With page-turners, we can find ourselves reading faster and faster towards the end in order to find out what will happen, at the same time kicking ourselves for not savouring it. So re-reading can help.
Obviously with all the millions of books out there to read, re-reading as an idea can feel like short change – why revisit when there are so many wonderful new books to read, and less time as we get older? It’s a difficult balance to strike.
Of course, re-reading can just be an irritation if you’re a forgetful person. I know of one reader (no names) who will be more than halfway through a David Baldacci book before realising they’ve read it before….and their time could have been better spent…