Getting the Nation Reading

by Katie Peters

At The Reader we were excited to hear that 2008 is to be a national year of reading. In a week in which there have been calls for television to be rationed for children, it is encouraging to see the government taking steps to give a higher profile to reading for pleasure.

During the previous ‘year of reading’, ten years ago, teachers, school librarians and governors organised thousands of reading events in schools, including author visits, book festivals and reading clubs. The initiative, however, aims to bring the wonderful world of books not just to schoolchildren but to everyone, from toddlers to grandparents, from avid readers to those who are less enthusiastic. A big part of this is encouraging families to spend time reading together, as Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Education, points out:

One of the most important things a parent can do to boost the educational chances of their children is to read to them. Simple, yes – but in a busy world it doesn’t happen enough. 30 per cent of parents don’t read regularly with their young children – a vital but missed opportunity to boost their children’s development. We watch an average of four hours’ television a day. If we read to our children for just a tenth of this every day, we’d give their chances a massive boost.

Many of us remember the joy of being read to as a child, but with channels such as CBeebies dedicated to young children available throughout the day, is the classic ‘bedtime story’ being replaced with half an hour in front of Teletubbies?

At The Reader we are working to promote reading for pleasure. Project worker Kerry Hughes has been working as ‘Reader in Residence’ at Weatherhead High School since September, reading to and with students. Another group that she works with at St James’ Library in Birkenhead have begun their own parents’ reading group at the school their children attend. During term time parents meet to read books and poems together. They share the reading aloud and discuss their difficulties and enthusiasms. Reading has become so important to the group that during school holidays they have organised sessions in which they read together with their children. These have been a huge success. Kerry says of the group,

Initially, the women lacked confidence in reading and were reticent when it came to expressing an opinion. For a year we have read together, struggling together over difficult poems and challenging texts and the group has bonded and strengthened. Confidence has soared; one of the women is now working as a librarian at her son’s school, another is just about to start A-Levels and two have set up a reading group for parents at their children’s school.

The prospect of a whole year dedicated to getting the nation excited about reading is wonderful, but in reality, it is a daunting task. The year will have to be as much about changing attitudes as it is about getting books into hands. Jane Davis, director of The Reader, comments:

The power of the story or poem is not just for children. Our Get Into Reading project is offering a model, which I hope will be taken up nationally, of inclusive and intense reading experiences for people of all ages, abilities and educational backgrounds. Read-aloud reading groups can help create community.

When I think about the reaction in the eyes of the 93-year-old dementia patient on hearing the old familiar words of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ read out to her last week, I join Alan Johnson in hoping that the national year of reading ‘will bring about another step-change in attitudes to reading for purpose and pleasure’, and look forward with anticipation to the effects that this change of attitude could have.

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