A couple of weeks ago a school librarian posted on Twitter about her disheartenment with the lack of engagement in reading shown by some pupils. This is despite the fact that they actually have a school library, and, even rarer, a school librarian. And this one is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and professional. What she sited was missing in this pupil cohort was reading engagement at home.
The data backs this up. Earlier this month, Egmont revealed (in Nielsen’s Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer survey 2018) that only 32% of children surveyed were read to daily by an adult for pleasure. This falls to 19% when looking at just 8-10 year olds. And the percentage of children who read for pleasure themselves has declined by 6 per cent since 2015 – down to only 52.5%.
And I have to admit, that no matter how many wonderful books you have stocked in the school library, and no matter the amount of time you spend talking about the books, reading the books, inviting authors and illustrators, or simply promoting your in-school book culture, if there isn’t any reading at home, it’s going to be a very hard fight to teach that child that reading is pleasurable, and not just some schoolwork chore to be chucked as soon as possible.
The phrase I use in INSET days (teacher training) is that reading is caught not taught. Reading for pleasure, that is. If the child doesn’t see their parent choose reading as a viable leisure option, and really concentrating on it, not looking at the phone every two minutes, then why would that child? You wouldn’t expect them to eat vegetables if you never ate vegetables yourself.
It’s the same at school. The school can provide a nutritious lunch – broccoli included – but if they’ve never seen broccoli at home, they might have it at lunch if they’re forced to, but when they leave school, it’s unlikely they’d choose to buy and eat broccoli. It’s just a ‘school’ food. And reading can be seen as just part of schooling.
Children who are read to at home are happy to engage in books, take time from their break to read – some actively prefer being in the school library to being in the school playground. Others need much more work, time and attention. In fact, even reading to these children in school can be difficult – they’re unsure what to do, how to listen, they start to fidget or look out the window. They are disengaged. And no matter how many voices you do, or how you pick texts that zing in the right rhythm, it’s harder to pull them into the lure of storytelling. It’s a strange activity for them.
That’s not to say school librarians should give up. Never, in fact. Just like Harry Potter, we persevere through battle after battle, attempting to hook children into the good magic. Giving talks to parents about the benefits of reading for pleasure and reading aloud, making sure that the library is stocked with a broad range of exciting, accessible books, including graphic novels, comics, funny books, early readers, specialist titles for dyslexics, even an audio listening device for audio books, and various periodicals. A librarian I know even hand-delivered books to children in the school holidays, hoping that they will continue to read. Some schools provide time for the parents to come in and read with their children in school.
And yet. And yet. There will still be those children (and their parents) who view reading as a chore, as part of schoolwork, children whose library book stays in the schoolbag for months, or gets chewed by the dog; the child who sadly puts Matilda back on the shelf, telling me that their carer is far too busy to read it to them.
Is it necessary to read to children? Why bother when the children have mastered how to read themselves? The answer is that reading for pleasure has a huge impact on children’s lives, from lowering stress levels and reducing mental health problems, to helping them do well at school and achieve success in later life. And the best ways to encourage your children to read for pleasure and instill in them a love for reading are a) to read to them and keep doing so for as long as possible, and b) read for pleasure yourself.
So I keep saying it to parents: reading starts at home. It’s just as important as eating well. A book is food for the mind.