“She remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.”
Clearing out my cupboard of children’s classics several months ago (a perfect procrastination from the mountains of marking that became a permanent feature of every weekend last year, when working as a secondary school English teacher), I rediscovered an old, well-thumbed copy of The Chronicles of Narnia; as I started to read it once again, I simply couldn’t put it down. This subsequently inspired one holiday homework idea, ahead of the upcoming school essay.
“I’m not going to set a single essay, comprehension test or written assignment for this half term!” I exclaimed to my rather disengaged Key Stage 3 class, with misplaced enthusiasm. “Your homework is, instead, to read a book. For pleasure.”
What I naively supposed to be a superlatively generous suggestion was met, unsurprisingly, by silence. As the class groaningly grabbed their school planners and began obediently – almost robotically – to fill in the task and due date, one particularly annoyed (and book-avoiding) child popped up his hand.
“Miss, why would I read a book for pleasure in my spare time, when I could play Call of Duty and have more fun?”
The question left me speechless. I could give the obvious answer, one I unthinkingly ramble to anyone asking anything about why reading books really matters. Reams of research proves to us over and over again that reading for pleasure outside the classroom is life-changing: it raises your grades; it enhances your empathy and emotional awareness; it helps you to understand your own and others’ identities; it empowers you to be an active citizen, promoting a healthier and happier society for yourself and others. It improves not only your literacy levels but your wider well-being and likelihood of future success.
That answer, however, would have switched off my audience in seconds. After all, teachers are designed to dictate what you must do! Homework will always be a horrible hardship, and that includes being told that you must read! As the class scribbled down ‘read a book‘ in their student homework planners, before scurrying away to their next lesson, it was clear that I needed to rethink how to not just tell but to properly show young people that reading books really can be favourable and more fun to plugging into the play-station, again, or wasting time on silly and often unsafe websites, again, or hanging outside on the streets not really doing anything, again.
C.S.Lewis gets it right. Books – and particularly children’s books – should not be seen as simply something to keep children occupied. Reading for pleasure, whilst it remains as something that we adults do not actually engage with ourselves and therefore actively prove is pleasurable, will continue seeming to children as a chore and not a choice. And it is that word – choice – that makes the difference. The benefits of reading for pleasure are undoubtedly bigger and better when reading is something students self-select through their own free will. Of course, we know that the concept of free-will is a fallacy. There is much detailed research into the subjectivity of choice, from debates about self-determinism to conversations about social and experiential conditioning. This is not, though, a blog about the endlessly unsolvable psychology of choice. Crucially, what underpins arguments about reading children’s books, both as children and as adults, is the question of how far the choices we make (freely or not) are made by the choices of those around us.
For now, let’s take at face value the fact that teachers and families have an irreversibly huge impact of young people’s decision making. Telling students to read for pleasure (as I mistakenly did) can end up having a detrimental effect, turning reading into a to-do list task rather than an enjoyment. Throughout my teaching career, the difference between students (usually but not always those in higher sets) who had been brought up with book-loving friends and families, where reading recommendations would be swallowed up more speedily than their sugary break-time snacks, and those who struggled with reading or for whom reading for fun was not a normalised part of in or out of school life, never failed to shock.
However, by observing adults – teachers, professionals and, most importantly, parents – actively reading, not only adult fiction but children’s literature too, students are far more likely to pick up a book. They’ve not been told to sit and read, if it’s promoting passively in this way; it is (fallacy or not) something they have selected to do themselves. Whilst C. S. Lewis’s views about choice are connected to his Christian faith when he suggests that “every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before”, this message undoubtedly speaks to us on a bigger level. As we adults choose to let go of phones or laptops (even if infrequently!) and give a dedicated space for reading stories a go instead, I have no doubt that we’ll see the transformative effects that reading for pleasure can have on the mind-sets of both children and adults.
Indeed, C. S. Lewis could not be more right. By consciously demonstrating that reading for pleasure is not compulsory but is a choice that we, as adults, freely, unfailingly and frequently select, young people will subconsciously seek out more stories for themselves, their behaviour influenced by those around them. Not having time to read is – like free choice – a fallacy. We can find a few minutes each day to dive into a book. If parents, teachers and all grown-ups give explicitly increasing importance to reading both adult and children’s literature, then gadget distractions and unhealthy attitudes to reading will diminish. Currently, children see us adults (who are all role models, really, whether we like it or not) continuously answering emails, scrolling through social media and generally giving in to technology’s addictive power, they will inevitably be more likely to follow suit, picking up a smartphone rather than a good story in their free time.
But it’s not too late to reclaim the power of children’s books. C. S. Lewis’s belief that children’s books are also meant for older audiences reminds us of how reading for pleasure can change the perceptions and perspectives not only of young readers but adults too. To see children’s fiction as irrelevant once we’ve grown up and grown more grey is – like free choice and our self-convincing lie that we don’t have time to read – yet another fallacy.
As adults who actively read so-called children’s books, we will not only be re-immersed in their magic but can also dive into deeper meanings. Us adults will also be taken on memorable adventures and re-adventures through fictional worlds (as we always tell children they will), form more meaningful relationships and re-learn to understand ourselves and others a little better, as well as discover new values and appreciation of different cultures and human behaviours. The emotions and experiences explored in good children’s literature remain at the heart of human experience, regardless of how long we’ve been adults.
Reading children’s books, then, as both young people and adults, opens the metaphorical wardrobe door, left too long locked. Like Edmund, Susan, Peter and Lucy, C. S. Lewis’s fantastic protagonists in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, re-visiting children’s books, particularly when read collaboratively with young people, unlocks deeper ideas and insights. ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ provides a wonderful insight into the transformative potential of reading. As C. S. Lewis’s captivating character Aslan claims, “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Young people will continue to disbelieve that reading can be about real life until we model it and make ourselves re-find the deeper meanings in children’s fiction. Let’s stop simply parroting the positives of ‘reading for pleasure’ and make space to do so ourselves.
Wilkinson, S (ed) (2015), https://readingagency.org.uk/news/The%20Impact%20of%20Reading%20for%20Pleasure%20and%20Empowerment.pdf, p.4-31.
Clark, C and Rumbold, K (2006), ‘Reading for pleasure: a research overview’, National Literacy Trust.
This is a fantastic blog! It’s always an important reminder to question what the separations are between adults and children and to revisit our own childhood classics.
A very insightful piece. I look forward to seeing what else this author produces in the future!
I found this thought provoking Alice and I totally agree. I do feel that we have lost the plot somewhat in primary education at the moment. We are often so absorbed in teaching every minute detail of the literacy curriculum that we forget to look at the whole picture. There are so many wonderful books written for children and young adults for us all to enjoy!
What a beautifully written piece Alice. As an Early Years teacher with over 20 yrs experience I have witnessed a decline in parental understanding of the importance of sharing literature with children. I did a short survey recently and lack of time was cited as the main reason. This time squeezing is also evident in classrooms, there is so much pressure on teachers to hit targets in all subjects that the ‘end of the day story’, which was often greatly anticipated by many of the children, has become a thing of the past. Our children need time to enjoy literature of all kinds and adults are the file models for this. Thank you Alice for being rave enough to follow your gut and heart as a passionate teacher instead of always dutifully towing the line.
Great piece Alice. I am currently rereading His Dark Materials – not a classic from my childhood but my son’s. A good children’s book stays in our hearts for life and not just childhood.
I enjoyed this piece Alice. Certainly, the decline in reading for pleasure is marked even since I was a young child, with a plethora of other options perceived to be more “exciting” or stimulating for children. i guess part of the challenge comes in encouraging parents to continue to promote reading when some of these other options may be easier or more accessible in the first instance. And agree – re-reading children’s books as an adult adds a whole new level of meaning!
Great piece. A great point about passive promotion rather than an ‘eat your vegetables’ approach to reading! I wonder whether part of this is referencing stories more often when speaking to (or in front of) children – just as you’ve referenced the Narnia books here. I know when I was a kid I chose to read some books because I thought it would give me an understanding of exactly where this stuff was coming from…
A very perceptive article there, also very instructive. It’s a little different but reminds me in some ways of promoting reading for pleasure among EFL students. Very important that reading isn’t thought to be a chore. Thanks for such a thought-provoking piece.
Great blog Alice. I teach secondary English and will definitely be trying out some of your ideas for promoting reading for pleasure!
You’ve made me want to read The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe again….. my absolute favourite childhood read!!!!
As a kid I read because it ate up the hours. It was cheap, (2nd hand bookstalls virtually every weekend fed the habit) and it was very much my time, not shared/not critiqued in the way that art or other creative activities might be, and was probably encouraged in a way that TV watching was not. I didn’t particularly pick for quality (Agatha Christie rubbing shoulders with EE Doc Smith).
Nowadays I have hundreds of books to choose from, and I do sometimes read ones aimed at kids (As a test *ahem* before passing onto nieces and nephews…) Some are indeed delightful even as an adult (Mortal Engines, Bartimaeus series, etc). Some however are pretty insipid, with the quality of plotting “excused” by being for kids. That’s no excuse at all! But quality varies. That’s why I *ahem* test…
As you say, making space for reading for pleasure for myself this year as totally transformed my life. Love the idea that we shouldn’t just be parroting the virtues of reading and instead be enjoying tbe activity!
My shelves are full of books but my daughter recently remarked, ‘I don’t know why you’ve got all those books but you never read them, you just look at your phone.’ I do read books, in fact, but probably not much when she’s about. I’ve made a concerted effort to read more in front of her and the last time I did she came and joined me on the sofa with her own book. Maybe she would’ve read just then anyway, but we had a nice companionable hour together and created a nice cosy memory of reading for both of us!
This touches on so many pertinent issues. Pupils feel overwhelmed by open ended tasks because they have been trained to complete discrete activities with a ‘right’ answer. Reading for pleasure and homework appear to be contradictory! Parents as well as teachers cling on to this view that reading is ‘good for you’re but like many things we can’t force it on them. My twelve year old son has decided there is no point in reading fiction, a view I find so alien I told him I didn’t know how anyone could get through life without fiction. He finds escapism in computer games but I sense (hope) that may change.
This is very interesting. I’m all for leading by example, so I never feel guilty reading around my own kids, and silence the inner critic that thinks “I should be” doing something more useful and productive, as I think it normalises reading and is a healthy pastime. But of course, I love books so it’s easy and pleasurable for me to do so.
Perhaps a conversation that may encourage more reluctant readers towards reading is in finding links between their passions (I.e. gaming) and literature. Are their any games spawned from books. How many games have sparked ‘how to’ or follow on guides, such as Minecraft (a lot my 7yr old informs me!), or, even graphic novels? Could we draw parallels on this intertexuality or between narrative devices used in both.
I would point out though that when it comes to teenagers and reading, we shouldn’t make too many assumptions. After complaining to my 16 year old daughter that she had been on her phone for what felt like hours on a long car trip, and asking why couldn’t have packed a book, she replied that she was indeed reading, a fan fiction site that she follows daily. That shut me up and closed the assumption that because she was using her phone she couldn’t have been doing anything of ‘value’. Okay, I’m a purist when it comes to literature, and love the weight and feel of a book, but for her it was just about being able to dip in and out on the go whenever she could or wanted to. I think that the idea that all kids use phones solely for gaming, social media and binging on popular culture is now quite outdated and it would be interesting to see if and how young people are really using technology, to learn from their sophistication, and bring along new ways we can harness this to aid their literary pleasure.
Interesting post, especially about passive persuasion. Also on adults no longer reading for pleasure. I don’t read much fiction these days for any number of reasons, and I miss it. So I’m off to re-read The Forgotten Patrol by A.R. Channel, a book from the 1950s that was my favourite aged 8. I found it at my Nan’s house, it belonged to my Dad when he was a boy. Then His Dark Materials, one of those books I’m always getting around to!
I have to admit, teaching 16-19 year olds, I am a little guilty of forcing children to read. I set a chapter for my Level 2 tutor group each week and give them a pop quiz the following week to evidence they’re read it. it is working though, as many have enjoyed the first chapters I’ve given and want to read the full books. I do think there’s something to be said for storytelling in different mediums – some computer games have incredibly layered stories and lore, World of Warcraft for example, but I also agree that the physical act of reading is incredibly important, too. As we all know, literacy is failing in the UK. We’re losing our language as more and more youngsters fail to achieve grades in standardised testing and don’t meet minimum expectations, undoubtedly due to failings elsewhere in the education system. Language is our identity, or at least it’s how we articulate it, and although it does and should develop and evolve, it shouldn’t do so at the expense of education; because new generations aren’t able to learn, or grasp their own language. great post, Alice. A very enjoyable and insightful read.