The new school term is underway, and as in recent years there is a greater onus on children reading for pleasure both as part of ‘achieving excellence’ in schools and to encourage a love of reading to be stimulated beyond the classroom. At The Reader Organisation, our projects with young people and in education settings are driven by the principle of letting children and young people enjoy reading and books first and foremost.
Recently, The Reader Organisation was chosen as official partners in Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson’s plans to transform Liverpool into the country’s foremost literate city by starting to improve reading in schools, making every child who leaves primary school in the city a reader. Already established is our Hope Readers project which is developing a culture of reading for pleasure amongst Liverpool Hope University students who are training to become teachers. Now going into its third year, the project is inspiring a new generation of teachers to act as role models for their future students by enthusing them to read for pleasure.
An article outlining the Hope Readers project by Charlotte Weber, our Reader-in-Residence at Liverpool Hope, was recently published in the Summer 2013 edition of English 4-11, the UKLA’s and The English Association’s journal aimed at inspiring teachers to develop their own practice:
What is reading for pleasure?
Over the past few years, reading for pleasure has gradually been making its way up the education agenda , emphasised by Ofsted making the promotion of reading for pleasure a requirement for achieving excellence in English schools. It is a much debated, sometimes contentious, issue; and rightly so, because what exactly is ‘reading for pleasure’? Without answering that question, schools and teachers can have little chance of being able to offer it practically to the young people they work with.
Not long ago I attended a lecture given by the award-winning children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce. He was receiving an honorary Professorship from Liverpool Hope University, and in his speech he referred to the importance of pleasure in the way that people learn.
‘Pleasure is the most profound form of concentration,’ he said, ‘when we experience something as pleasure we give it our whole attention, and it stays with us, long after the moment.
But you can’t teach pleasure: you have to share it.’ The pleasure of shared experiences is inherent in all areas of human life: to use one of Frank’s own anecdotes, you wouldn’t teach a child to play football by first asking them to memorize the off-side rule, the history of the Premier League and World Cup finalists 1960-2012, then after a few weeks letting them kick a ball in a field. But you might start by taking them into the garden with a ball, having a kick-around with them, and making it into a bit of a laugh. It is the same with reading. In order for a child to become a reader, they need to be able to decode the text, yes, but they also need to be given the space to enjoy reading for what it is.
The key to this inheritance, the connection between the literature and the child, can often be an adult role-model. Just as young people need role models in other areas of life, they also need an adult who shows them what reading could mean for them, and what being a reader could do for them. This is where The Reader Organisation comes in. Our pioneering social project, Get Into Reading, has reached some places that you might not expect much reading to happen, including: prisons, mental health in-patient wards, supermarkets, homeless shelters and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres. Until recently, though, we didn’t have activity in one of the places that you might expect it: a university. This all changed, however, when TRO was asked by the Vice Chancellor of Liverpool Hope University, Professor Gerald Pillay, to ‘create a culture of shared reading’ throughout the university, starting with the training primary teachers in the faculty of Education.
Readers in residence at Hope
A few weeks later LHU commissioned a three year ‘reader in residence’ project from TRO, with two aims: to inspire the students to become active and social readers, part of the vision of the ‘Hope graduate’ as a fully-rounded, emotionally literate individual; and to provide a national model of an institution of Higher Education that aimed to influence its students, staff and wider community through transformational reading experiences.
A colleague and I were appointed as Readers in Residence at Hope, with the primary responsibility of setting up and supporting reading for pleasure groups with first-year students in the Faculty of Education. The groups are weekly, timetabled sessions of an hour in length, which the students are expected to attend as they would any other class. The difference with the reading groups is that the students are not assessed in any way and nobody has to contribute during a session any more or less than they want to. Students do not prepare before the group, as anything we read is encountered for the first time and read aloud there in the room: the point of this being that when literature is read aloud it becomes live; the whole group can share it and move towards an understanding of it together.
It was in the third week of our introductory sessions that I had my first glimpse into what the project could become. I was sitting with another colleague and two female students. We all had a book of poems in front of us, open at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29. We only read poetry in those first sessions – the rationale being that they were short, and therefore opened up the arena for conversation and feedback more easily, and it was easy to quickly provide a variety of texts should one particular poem not be of interest to any of the members. In this particular case, the two students had already warned me when we chose the poem that they didn’t ‘get’ Shakespeare; their last experiences of his work were of being in an exam hall answering questions on a couple of his plays, neither of which they felt they had understood. So we were already on rocky ground, but I continued and read the poem aloud twice – remembering the mantra of Get Into Reading: ‘slower is always better’ – very, very slowly, before we stopped to discuss it.
Silence. After a moment, I asked the students what they thought. There was some general mumbling about ‘old language’, and we agreed that sometimes it is hard to understand Shakespeare right away. So I asked them if they recognised any of the feelings that the speaker in the poem is describing. Silence again. Downward cast looks.
Then one of them said, ‘Well, I know what he means by “looking on yourself” – that’s like looking in the mirror, isn’t it, and not liking what you see.’ More silence, but this time with a growing sense of excitement … Then the other student very cautiously said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense. And then after that, in the next bit, he’s starting to compare himself to other people, isn’t he? And feeling jealous? Everybody does that.’
Half an hour later, the session ended with a group which had related Shakespeare’s sonnet to one student’ s refusal to wear Bench clothing anymore, because ‘everybody cares too much about brands now, and all they do is make you self-conscious anyway.’ We had discussed how, when you are a teenager, other people’s opinions are so important and nothing is worse than that feeling of not being part of a group – an ‘outcast’. The students spoke about how they were beginning to come out of that phase now, and to realize who their real friends were, the people whose opinions really mattered to them. And that, we decided, is what happens to the speaker at the end of the poem too. That feeling of ‘the lark at break of day arising / From sullen earth’ made us think about times when we had been dragged out of a gloomy or downcast mood by the kind words of a friend or loved-one.
‘I’d forgotten how much fun it is’
By the time the Christmas break came around, I’d had a store of similar experiences. One of the sessions I led was regularly attended by the seminar tutor of the students in the group. During the reading group he wasn’t their teacher anymore, but just another member of the group – sometimes reading aloud, sometimes asking questions, always contributing to the discussion, sharing his experiences, and encouraging the students to do so. As a group, we read a wide variety of short stories, and The Unforgotten Coat, a short novel for children and young adults by Frank Cottrell Boyce.
One of the students in the group told me it had made her remember why she loved reading so much. ‘I’d forgotten how much fun it is!’ she commented, ‘I’d forgotten that feeling of suddenly finding a story you connect with, and characters you care about. It’s great!’ The tutor also commented that it was refreshing to be able to get to know his group of students in a different way.
One male member of a group had been a keen reader when he was younger, but as he moved up into sixth form and university, the increased pressure of work meant that he just didn’t feel like he had time to read for pleasure anymore. ‘It’s nice,’ he said, ‘to just have an hour a week which is set aside to read for myself – read something because I want to, I mean. It’s good being in the group, too, because if it was just me on my own, I probably wouldn’t stick at it.’
A ten-week reading of Patrick Ness’ novel for young adults, A Monster Calls, in another group provided one student with the space to form a deeply personal connection to the text, and gradually reveal her own experiences of the loss of a parent to cancer. This was something that she freely shared with the group: she was never asked to say more or less than she wanted to. In our very last group of the year we finished reading the novel and I asked the students whether they would consider reading it with children. Many said no, because of its sad subject matter, but this girl said yes: I asked her why.
‘It’s sad, yes,’ she said, ‘but it’s realistic – and sometimes, kids know when things are being sugar-coated. Not everything in the real world is happy or easy, and I think it’s good that there’s books out there that reflect that. It’s a good book, and it deals with a difficult subject in a good way, so I’d read it with a class.’
After the session, I thanked her for her bravery and honesty during the weeks of reading and she told me that she found it helpful, rather than painful, to read a story that resonated so strongly with her own experience.
There is pleasure in finding meaning; there is pleasure in being moved – moved beyond yourself, moved to tears, moved to laughter – and, there is pleasure in being able to express this and share it with other people. So what is reading for pleasure? I believe it is about reading to find connections: connection to words and language; connections within yourself; connections to other people and the world around you. Through the project with Hope University, we want to make more of those connections happen for new teachers at the start of their careers, so that they can set them alight in the young people they will meet throughout their professional lives.
More information on the English 4-11 magazine can be found on the UKLA’s website.
We are currently looking for a ‘City of Readers’ Project Manager to lead in Liverpool in our partnership with the ‘From Better to Best’ initiative, developing a life-long love of reading for pleasure in children and young people. Full information can be found on the Working With Us section of our website (deadline for applications: Tuesday 17th September 2013)