“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
As a very young child, like so many others, my school reading consisted of Janet and John-style reading scheme books. Whilst these undoubtedly helped me develop my reading skills, the plots were a bit dry, and not particularly inspiring. I was fortunate, though, as my parents and grandparents bought me books, and we paid regular visits to our local library. I particularly enjoyed Paddington Bear and The Mr Men Series, and as an older child, I discovered Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and other authors whose writing still endures today.
My own daughter is now seven years of age. At school, she learnt to read using the Jolly Phonics scheme. At home, she has literally hundreds of books, and is a voracious reader. Last year, for example, my father bought her the complete series of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven Books, which she went through like wildfire. Now, she actively seeks out other titles by Blyton and positively devours them all.
But not all children are so fortunate, and it’s here where schools should play a part. As an older pupil at secondary school, I became fascinated by the row-upon-row of class sets of books that lined the shelves of our classrooms. I began to borrow some of these famous titles to take them home to read. By doing this – and by reading the books were studying in class – I discovered a cornucopia of books and authors: I read Austen, The Brontes, Dickens, Harper Lee, F Scott Fitzgerald, among others, and plays by Arthur Miller, Seamus Heaney and Shakespeare. I also read poetry by TS Eliot, Wilfred Owen, Sylvia Plath and Walt Whitman and anything by Oscar Wilde.
Now, I know from experience that not all children are as happy to take a book home to read as I was; in fact, there are so many electronic distractions these days, that for many kids enforced reading is a chore. I think this is where reading in class might make a real impact.
To Kill a Mockingbird is still one of my all time favourite novels. I was introduced to this book as part of my GCSE Literature course. In class, we read it together, slowly, chapter by chapter. We pored over the characters and plot nuances until they became like old friends, until the story became so three-dimensional that we were almost there with Scout and Jem, running those dusty streets alongside them. Such is the power of good teaching.
The intricate study of this book gave me skills of analysis that I was able to apply to enhance my reading of other books, by other authors – a bit like adding seasoning or sauce to a meal. Skills which undoubtedly helped me through an English degree.
That’s why, this year, I’m determined to re-introduce the idea of a class reading book. I hope to encourage a love of literature in young people who might not otherwise discover it for themselves; young people who may not be growing up in houses full of books; young people who might not ever get taken to their local library – but kids who are are no less likely to be receptive to a ripping yarn as my daughter and I.
We have just begun a topic on Gothic Horror, and I’m about about to order class sets of both Dracula and Frankenstein. Let’s see if the evocative and macabre words of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley can sow the seeds of a love of literature in some 21st Century kids’ minds, as Harper Lee’s tale of love and injustice in the Southern States sowed in mine.
*This blog was written for Innovate my School (www.innovatemyschool.com)
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