I have a stock answer when a parent asks me, as their child’s English teacher, how to help their teenager to improve ‘their English’ at home. My answer? Simply to do everything they can to encourage them to read. Just read. Then come the various parental responses to this: ‘they used to read but don’t any more’ or ‘they’ve never enjoyed reading’ or ‘we don’t read much ourselves’ or ‘we are readers and try to encourage them but they just aren’t interested’. If I had a pound for every time I hear these reasons … On the other hand, there are also students in my classes who did read as younger children and have kept on reading. Then there are those students who rarely ever read for pleasure at any time (and boy do they love to tell you this) but they then still do very well in English at Higher. It’s a puzzle with no easy solution but one we’ve got to keep trying to crack.
Thinking back to my own childhood, I was always with a book. Probably by the time I was doing my Highers though, I felt there was little time to enjoy reading simply for pleasure and this was the same during my degree course – too little time and picking up a book for ‘fun’ was an activity that fell by the wayside. I can therefore understand why our students do that too – life’s busy, demanding and stressful for everyone. Maybe if I had known back then that reading for pleasure actually improves mental well-being and reduces stress levels by 67%, I might’ve used bibliotherapy to de-stress when heading towards exams and as a beneficial break for my brain from studying. Now that I do know that reading’s actually good for your emotional and physical self – it must be true, the experts are saying so. It has been scientifically proven that reading for pleasure’s not simply a distraction from the here and now. By engaging the imagination with the words on the page you stimulate your creativity, enter an altered state of consciousness and this helps ease tensions in muscles and in the heart.
So now we can justify why young people should read, what’s the next step? In our primary schools we’ve always relied on teachers to teach children to read – cracking the code that’s the nuts and bolts of literacy. As parents, we’ve sat patiently listening to many an Oxford Reading Tree story being read aloud. In secondary schools though – as teachers and as continually supporting parents – what we’re still not doing enough of is teaching young people the art of reading. Many of our students can read but they aren’t readers. How many of us as adults only read in the holidays as there’s no time during the working week? How can we say to young people to make the time to regularly read for pleasure when we don’t ourselves? If we make the excuse of not having the time or because we are already well read or because we aren’t the ones having to sit exams (been there, done that) then we’re doing them a real disservice. It’s time for us to read by example.
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