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Rosie Goodwin
Family Arts Correspondent
1:07 AM 6th June 2020

‘Silly Squad’ Could Help Us Rethink What Matters About Reading

This week sees the launch of the Summer Reading Challenge across the UK. It only feels like two minutes since I was writing about it last year.

This summer, of course, things are feeling a little different. For a start, the Challenge has moved online. It has also started early.

The aim has always been to keep children reading during a period of the year when many can fall behind with reading, experiencing what is sometimes known as a summer ‘dip’. Having been an English teacher for over a decade, I can testify that it can feel heartbreaking to see not just a stagnation in children’s reading capabilities, but a backwards step - the loss sometimes of several months on a child’s ‘reading age’.

This year it feels more important than ever to encourage youngsters into good reading habits. The vast majority of children and young people will have been effectively out of formal education for five months before the new academic year commences in September. How many of them will return with positive attitudes to books?

I’d like to focus on the more reluctant readers out there, the ones for whom reading is nothing short of hard work.

The first thing that needs to be said – and probably doesn’t get said enough – is that reading is about a great deal more than being able to recognise and sound out words on the page, a process known as decoding. Some people would say that decoding is only the beginning. I’m not one of those people: I think that stage can come later.

In fact, the ability to read alone is only one part of a much bigger reading process. This summer, and this pandemic, could offer an opportunity for parents to prioritise something else, placing the emphasis for reluctant readers on books for pleasure.

How wonderful would it be if we could send children back to school in September with positive associations with books?

The Summer Reading Challenge has picked the theme of ‘silly’ this year, planned far before the notion of a pandemic had occurred to any of us. It aims to remind us that books can be fun. Books can make us laugh, cheer us up, help us to escape into a joyous world of words. It seems like a theme made for a global pandemic.

What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, of course, unless we manage to turn a fun challenge into an agonising slog – if we start force feeding children reading material ‘because it’s good for them’. If you have a reluctant reader, for whom reading alone is a painful and protracted experience, I’d like to suggest that there is another way.

And so I’m going to let you in on a secret. Throughout their education, when children are assessed on their reading abilities, there is an array of different skills being tested. Many of these focus on the ways that our young people engage with texts. In the classroom, English teachers encourage children to form connections with the stories they encounter, to link texts to their own experiences and offer their own views, including about what they like and dislike.

From a young age, children are supported to explore our literary heritage, to recognise familiar fairy tales or traditional stories. English teachers are delighted when youngsters join in with lines that they recognise, or can recite sections by heart. We’re happy for children to explain what they think of a title, or a character, or a setting. We ask youngsters to predict what might come next, to ask questions or share their thoughts about a story or the motivations behind a particular action. At higher levels, we talk about the impact of techniques that a writer has deployed, a simile perhaps, or the sounds of the letters. We talk about how texts make us feel.

All of these are considered core reading skills and, crucially, all can be achieved without children reading a single word from a book themselves. All of them can be accomplished, in fact, with the aid of an audio book, a service like Audible, or by having a book read aloud by a parent instead of struggling through it alone.

If home-schooling is beginning to feel like torture with a reluctant reader, my advice would be to take a step back and approach instead some of the other reading skills. Things are a little different at the moment, after all.

Pick up a different book (maybe a more exciting, more challenging one) and read it out aloud to your kids - or sit down together to listen to a story as a family. The discussions you can have together about a text are every bit as valid in terms of ‘reading skills’. They may also be more manageable at this moment in time.

At some point, of course, children need to learn to read for themselves. But I would argue that for some children it is more appropriate to get them first to a place where books are a source of pleasure, not agony. Crucially, no book will ever have meaning whilst decoding words is a struggle. A story is only gripping if read at the appropriate pace, so that the action isn’t lost. Essentially, the very act of getting stuck on a word means the flow is lost, the plot becomes too hard to follow and the characters too difficult to identify with. Hearing a story read aloud can be a turning point.

This summer, let’s prioritise stories for pleasure – let’s throw out the old rules and have fun.

Rosie’s tips for supporting reading

To discuss a story with your children you could consider:
The title
What you think of a character
Whether you’d have done the same in a character’s shoes
What might happen next

Don’t forget, you can read poetry and non-fiction, too. We don’t all have to like the same books.

To find out more about the Silly Squad and the Summer Reading Challenge, go to www.readingagency.org.uk/children/quick-guides/summer-reading-challenge/

Rosie Goodwin works with a range of heritage organisations, libraries and schools, providing arts engagement activities and consultancy via her small business MakeMore Arts. You can find her on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/makemorearts/