Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Reading War or The Battle Against Distractions

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...

There seems to be a lot of talk about reading this week. It has been on the news. The first talk at a conference I attended was on reading and, this week, at a parents’ evening I spent a lot of my time talking about reading.  In fact, for the past three parents’ evenings I have been suggesting the same thing with lots of lovely parents. This is what I have suggested they do:

Each day, get your son/daughter to read for ten to fifteen minutes. However, the reading should be done at the kitchen table and the parents should set their cooker or microwave timer for ten minutes and the student must read for that time. They cannot leave the table. They cannot have music on. They cannot have a laptop or a mobile phone on the table. They must read a book. The parent, whilst cooking, can monitor the reading and ask them questions about it afterwards.

This is a complete change of perspective on my part. I usually float in the ‘liberal lefty’ camp, yet for this aspect only, I am clearly on the ‘far-right extremist’ training camp. On this issue I am the Jack Bauer in 24; I AM NOT GOING TO STOP UNTIL I GET THE RESULTS I WANT. Sorry, for shouting, but that is usually how Jack Bauer speaks. Anyway, I have spent a long time hoping that teenagers would find a love of reading through my enthusiasm, exposure to excellent books, and pure and simple osmosis. However, this works for a few, but I think, sadly, it hasn’t worked for most and it hasn’t worked for all. 

Product DetailsHow did I find a love of reading? I wish I could say that I had an English teacher who inspired me and gave me a novel that I still treasure to this day, but sadly I don’t have that experience. I have talked about enjoying studying a book, but the spark that turned me into a ‘reader’ was a funny one. My first reading experience I remember is Mrs. Glasson reading ‘The Enchanted Wood’ by Enid Blyton. I loved the experience, because I got to hold a teddy bear, with dungarees, as the story was read to us. Then, the rest of primary school was a dry patch in reading. I read one or two books about Greek mythology and on birds. The RSPB kind and not the other kind. Yet, I read very little else.  

At secondary school things got a little better. I found out in Year 7 that there were novels of Doctor Who stories I hadn’t seen. Then, over a three year period, I bought hundreds of these books. They were simple, straight-forward prose, but I bloody loved them.  As I got older my interest waned a bit and I read less and less.

Product DetailsAt the age of 18 I went on holiday with some friends. I had an accident and knocked myself out.  The next night I decided to sit and read, while the others went out. On the journey to Ibiza, I had picked up a magazine with a free copy of a novel. The novel was ‘The Philosophical Investigation’ by Phillip Kerr. From that moment on, I devoured books on a weekly basis and I keep doing that to this day. I read, read and read some more. I got on to the classics soon enough and grew to love D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Iain Banks, Ian McEwan, Susan Hill, Sarah Waters and many more. But what sparked that interest in reading wasn’t really a teacher, or a worthy literary text (sorry, Kerr), it was a dull, boring, nothing to do situation. Books sell themselves. People just need to read them and give them time.  ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a superb novel, but you could easily lose interest based on the opening.

Do we have the right environments for students to enjoy reading? Everything in modern life is designed to entertain, grab, hold and keep you coming back for more. Life seems to be punctuated now with the phrase, “Stay tuned as in the next five minutes we will see what the secret to becoming rich is.” Even this week I struggled to read a book one night because there was an interesting conversation on Twitter, and I wanted to see how it progressed. Anyway, students sit down at the end of the school day and what have they got to relax and entertain them?

·         MP3 player

·         A kindle – other ebook readers are available

·         An iPad

·         An iPhone or a smart phone

·         PS3 or a DS

·         A laptop

·         TV

·         DVDs

·         A board game

·         A book

Now, if I was in room with all of these, I would struggle to jump to a book. Is it any wonder that our students rarely read a home? Is there any wonder why students fail to be interested in reading? All of these items on the list scream for attention. Look how interesting we are! A book in that line-up is the one that is silent, modest and unassuming. It hides. 

Growing up for me was very hard in comparison. I had four channels to watch on TV. Usually, the best programmes had finished by five o’clock, and then it was the news. I didn’t fancy watching ‘World in Action’ which was on later. Maybe I should play on the computer instead. I would then wait ages for the tape to spool information to the graphically challenged computer. Often, it would fail and you would have to start the whole process again. Maybe I should listen to music instead. I’d listen to my Walkman, which would quickly run out of charge as it ate batteries up like a gorilla eats bananas. Finally, I would read a book. Adopts Hovis advert voice-over:  In my day, I would be left with lots of free time and not much to do, so I would read to fill my time.

Today students don’t have the time or the space to enjoy reading. They do, and, can enjoy reading. Ask any English teacher what one of the key guns in their behaviour arsenal is? Usually, they will say reading. You can hear a pin drop when a novel is read in class. It can settle a class easily. For DT it is the danger element of equipment that could slice your hand off. For PE it is the joy of playing a game. For English it is reading a book.

It could be argued that students today are reading in a different way. Reading Tweets, Facebook and other things on a screen is still reading. English teachers need to get used to the new situation. This is the modern world, so get used to it. However, I don’t think the novel is dead yet. Parents are always telling me how they love reading and they are disappointed by their son’s / daughter’s lack of interest. There’s my army. I have the parents onside. They want them to read more. I want them to read more. We just need to get the students to read more. We need to find ways to light the blue touch paper and stand back as the student enjoys reading.   


The film industry is our biggest ally. They make often excellent versions of books. Thankfully, they love making a series or a trilogy.  And, thankfully, there is usually a gap of two or three years between parts in a trilogy. The gap is the perfect opportunity to get students hooked. Harry Potter’s success snowballed between films and books. More and more people got hooked. Get students interested in a book through the film adaptations. For decades now there have been film tie-in books. Get them reading through films. Did you like the ‘Hunger Games’?Yes, well there are two more books, which you will love. Or, would your rather wait a year for the next part in the cinema?Embedded image permalink

Product DetailsAlso, the film industry loves hype. It loves creating the new best thing. Oh, look everyone else is reading that book. Gosh, reading has got like that now. The hype of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ got me interested in the book. Sadly, the book is not my cup of tea, or remotely interesting. Like most people, I wanted to know why everybody was raving about it. Let’s, as teachers, create and build on that kind of hype and build it about other books. Let’s try and pick the next best thing and rave and rave about it and talk to students openly in class who have read said book.  Get students interested through ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ . A book I think is going to be a big thing – I could get this wrong – is by Joseph Delaney (an ex-English teacher)and it is called ‘The Spook’s Apprentice’. I have read the series and it is creepy, boy and girl friendly and a good yarn. Plus, there is a film being filmed now. Start the hype now!

Toys ‘R Us was my version of Heaven as a child. The only thing it missed was fluffy clouds. However, I think my new version of Heaven is Waterstone's. The teenage fiction section is fabulous now. Compare things to the 90s book shops and you’ll know what I mean. Even Tescos is better for teenage fiction than most book shops in the 90s. There are hundreds of appealing books that are crafted and decorated to interest a student. Parents ask me for a reading list and I am struggling more and more to provide one as there are so many new books. The list I gave last year is a bit outdated. Get a teenager to a shop and get them to pick a book that interests them. Get them to read the blurbs. Get them to read the first lines. Teenagers hate being told what to do most of the time. That is why it is better to get them to make the choices, rather than thrust a book in their direction and insist in them reading it. I loved it as a teenager, so you will love it too. Umm, I don't think so, Dad.

Product DetailsFor boys, I tend to direct them to ‘Cirque Du Freak’ by Darren Shan.  It is old now, but I have read it with numerous boys and they have loved it. It is pacey and has lots of grim stuff and short chapters.


The non-fiction world is much more varied than the fiction one at times. I would argue students would connect better with reading if we placed a greater emphasis on these kinds of whole texts in schools. It is always about reading a story. Reading some fiction that isn’t real and relatable to that student’s experience. It is purely escapism. Non-fiction is more relevant than fiction. It is about real things, real people and real information.  Look at this biography of a celebrity you like. Isn’t it interesting how they felt the same way you do about school when they were a teenager?

So you love cars, read a book about cars. In my teenage years, I got interested in reading about famous haunted landmarks. It was a niche area of books, but I devoured them. Now on reading lists produced by other departments, I have yet to see a selection about real ghost sightings, yet it had me interested. Could the fact that majority of English teachers are ‘literature’ teachers at heart be a drawback in getting students to read? I love literature, so you will love it. Personally, I adore Charles Dickens, but I would never recommend his books to students. I would rather they read full stop. Some engage in literature and some don’t.

Plus, put a novel and One Direction biography before a student. I bet their hand will rush to the biography.

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My daughters have just started reading the lovely ‘Biff and Chip’ books. They are excited by the books. They love them, but I can imagine ten years down the line when they will turn their noses up at books. Then I will lock them in a room and wait and wait until they admit to reading and engaging in reading. I have my battle plan ready.

I organise a lot of reading activities in my school. I run a ‘Readathon’, shadow the Carnegie CILIP Book Award for students, shadow the Man Booker Prize (current shortlist is quite depressing) with adults and many more things to promote reading. Often, the readers will read and the reading-phobic stay phobic about reading. I create the opportunities for reading, but maybe, just maybe, something a little bit drastic is needed. I am not suggesting ‘waterboarding’ or any other techniques of torture, but maybe we switch things off for students and get them to focus on one thing and learn to enjoy it.

It isn’t always our place to enthuse people about reading; I think books do that for us. I think it is our place to make reading happen.


P.S. Here are just a few books that I recommend teachers to read, because they are bloody good.
  • 'A Monster Calls' by Patrick Ness
  • 'Revolver' by Marcus Sedgewick
  • 'Across the Nightingale Floor' by Lian Hearn
  • 'The Knife of Never Letting Go' by Patrick Ness - and the whole series
  • 'The Dead of Winter' by Christopher Priestly
  • 'Mortal Engine' by Phillip Reeve
Book images are from:  

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