Diversity of children reading

9 November 2009 by Jennifer

Partly in response to a question from Lord Lucas, some thoughts on children’s reading.

Children’s reading was in the news the other week. “There is no evidence that an early introduction to formal learning has any benefit, the review says, but there are suggestions it can do some harm.

Lord Lucas asked on his blog: “what are home educators’ experiences on when a child is ready to read?” The answers describe many different paths into reading, taken by children at different ages.

I think it’s pretty obvious from those accounts that there isn’t one age which is optimum for every child to start reading. But I found myself thinking more about how diverse people are in what they read, and why they want to. So I thought I’d write something about that.

Varieties of reading

When I was a child, I had very little interest in factual books. I liked stories where children had adventures. I liked the Narnia books, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, the Chalet School, Uncle the elephant, and so on. I remember at around 10, I was reading my way through Willard Price’s “Adventure” series, which were in the school library, and a little later on I discovered Antonia Forest, Isaac Asimov and W.E. Johns’ Biggles. I’d also tried Lord of the Rings at about 8, but stopped somewhere after page 700 because it was getting too scary for my liking!

Still to this day I enjoy reading fiction. I like to be taken to another world, along with other people who might be similar to me or might be very different. I like to learn from other people’s lives (fiction or autobiography), and imagine what it must be like to be them.

Over time I’ve got much more into factual books too. If I want to learn about something, I’m very likely to see if the library’s got a book about it. I also like books like Nancy Kline’s Time to think, or Martha Beck’s Finding your own North Star, which are about life and include true stories about how other people found their way through some tricky situation.

A lot of children enjoy the closeness of sitting down with an adult to read a book – be it a story book or a factual one. There’s a sense in which the book itself is important mainly as a catalyst for cuddles and conversation. Of course, that kind of interaction doesn’t require the child to be able to read.

I think I maybe missed out on that a bit by being such an early reader (“you can read it yourself!”), but I have a fond memory of all of us being read a Pooh story by my Grandma. It was the one where Tigger arrived :-)

Children may also enjoy co-reading a fact book with an adult. It doesn’t matter which person does the reading – what’s important is the discussion of what’s on the page.

Reading can be a “window on the world“. One young child I know will come and read the newspaper headlines over the parent’s shoulder, and ask what things mean. That’s a great catalyst for conversation :-)

Another child I know is very keen on helping his Mum with the shopping. He gets “reading practice” through wanting to read the labels on tins and packets. It’s a genuine contribution to his community.

In Iris Harrison’s diary, which I was reading the other day, there’s a bit where the children are doing car maintenance. The crucial book is the manual!

In home ed circles I’ve heard lots of other stories of where children first got into reading when there was some kind of “how-to” involved. It might be instructions for a computer game, for instance.

Another seemingly-common scenario is where a child’s reading and writing really takes off as a result of social connections – pen-pal friendships, or nowadays emails or instant messaging.

Learning that hinges on reading

In school, there’s an additional reason to learn to read: not falling behind.

Because of the way that schools work, there’s lots of material for which in school, reading is the only route.

(Similarly, teachers rely heavily on written material to find out what a child knows.)

This is what the “1 in 5 illiterate on leaving primary school” meme is all about. It doesn’t actually mean those 1 in 5 children can’t read at all. What it means is their reading level is estimated not to be high enough to follow the secondary school curriculum as currently designed.

So it seems inescapable in the current system that school children must be pushed to read, whether or not they’d yet discovered any personal reason to want to, and whether or not it was the “optimum time” for them in any other sense. Otherwise they’d go through all the rest of school at a disadvantage.

Reading that’s all about the reading

On the one hand, there’s no point pretending that this isn’t the case. In the current school system, children who can’t read as well as their peers are done a terrible disservice.

On the other hand, I have this feeling that it probably isn’t optimal to make reading all about the reading. It seems to me that’s a bit bent out of shape. Reading’s natural manifestation isn’t as a thing in itself, but as a way to get where you want to go – be that another world or a particular corner of this one.

If you’re reading to get where you want to go, then either you’ll persevere with the reading, or you’ll get help to get where you want to go by some other route. (One of the reasons it doesn’t matter how late “home ed” children start to read is that they have so many other routes for learning, including far more conversation time than most children get in school.)

Reading for the sake of learning to read – or reading for the sake of demonstrating to someone else you can read – while being not actually that interested in what you’re reading… that’s a whole different thing. If it’s true that some children are put off reading altogether by that situation, it wouldn’t surprise me.

And feeling compelled to learn to read because otherwise you’ll lose face must surely be the worst of all worlds – bound to engender anxiety and make the process harder.

Brain development and pre-reading skills

Some people offer arguments about brain development in this context – e.g. that the brain isn’t physically ready to read until the child is a certain age. I tend to take those with a pinch of salt. Glenn Doman‘s work in the 1950s and 1960s showed that babies can learn to read – seemingly often more easily than older children – though that doesn’t answer whether it’s the best thing for them.

For individual children, I imagine there may well be precursor skills which mean reading would be extra difficult or impossible before they’re acquired. But I don’t think that means you can link all those capabilities directly to particular ages.

One reading-relevant factor I’ve heard about is spoken vocabulary. The research of Todd Risley and Betty Hart shows that a wide spoken vocabulary correlates with subsequent reading success. It makes sense: if you know a word already and you’re recognising it, that’s always going to be easier than encountering in print a word you’ve never heard before.

But I would also say that children’s curiosity naturally turns in different directions at different times, and that usually the optimum time for a child to learn something is when their curiosity is turned in that direction. (Well, not just for children, for adults too – when you’re genuinely curious about something is the time you’ll most easily take it in.) A strong craving for knowledge can overcome all kinds of practical obstacles and create its own “right time to learn”. So perhaps that ought to be considered the truest predictor of being “ready”.

The ideal situation

I think ideally every child would learn to read when they wanted to for their own reason(s) – be it curiosity about other people’s reading, as a side-effect of a game they’re enjoying, or to acquire particular information. And ideally, this would be considered completely normal. I realise this is impossible in the current mainstream school system, but if it were possible I think it would be better.

Some people reading that paragraph would probably react with “But what if they never wanted to?!”

But come on, how likely is that? How likely is it that they’d reach adulthood never having encountered any situation where it would be genuinely useful (on their own terms) to learn to read?

Certainly it seems to be vanishingly rare for children in child-led education to not be reading by the time they turn 16. (It might be true of some children with special educational needs who would never have learned by any path.)

Love of stories, or other relationships

And then there’s what children in school are supposed to learn when they can read.

I’m going to quote Philip Pullman now, from his Isis Lecture of 2003:

Stories are written to beguile, to entertain, to amuse, to move, to enchant, to horrify, to delight, to anger, to make us wonder.

They are not written so that we can make a fifty word summary of the whole plot, or find five synonyms for the descriptive words. That sort of thing would make you hate reading, and turn away from such a futile activity with disgust. In the words of Ruskin, it’s “slaves’ work, unredeemed.”

Those who design this sort of thing seem to have completely forgotten the true purpose of literature, the everyday, humble, generous intention that lies behind every book, every story, every poem: to delight or to console, to help us enjoy life or endure it.

That’s the true reason we should be giving books to children. The false reason is to make them analyse, review, comment and so on.

But they have to do it – day in, day out, hour after hour, this wretched system nags and pesters and buzzes at them, like a great bluebottle laden with pestilence. And then all the children have to do a test; and that’s when things get worse.

He finishes by saying:

Make this the golden rule, the equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: Everything we ask a child to do should be something intrinsically worth doing.

(Thanks to Louisa for bringing this excellent lecture to my attention.)

I remember when I was 10 we had to write book reviews. I didn’t much like it, especially the bit where you had to say whether the book was any good. I never knew what to write. Somehow I just didn’t seem to have an opinion on that!

To solve the problem, I developed an ingenious policy of nearly filling one side of paper with a description of the story, leaving just enough room to write one line of bland approval. The end of the piece of paper then seemed like an obvious place to stop – phew! (I don’t remember my formula exactly, but probably something like “This was an interesting book”.)

In retrospect, this was one of those classic add-on impositions of which Pullman speaks. Obviously I didn’t think the book was rubbish, or I wouldn’t have bothered reading it; but evaluating its quality in any other way didn’t feature in my thinking. I had no intrinsic need or desire for that whatsoever. I just read each book that appealed to me, for what it was worth, and then went on to the next one.

Some thousands of books later, I naturally developed a keener discernment for the skills and subtexts of stories, and of writing in general. Nowadays, if I wanted to and anyone wanted to pay me, I’d have no trouble holding down a job as a book reviewer. But at the time, my natural orientation was towards simply drinking in the stories. In retrospect, if my later analytical skills had been the point (which they weren’t, of course), I was still at the data-gathering stage.

So did writing the reviews add anything valuable for me? I’m not convinced it did, or not enough to be a good use of my time. Perhaps that time would have been better spent reading another book, or writing a poem or story of my own.

Diversity in multiple dimensions

But even cutting the make-work wouldn’t be the whole answer.

The children who read manuals don’t want to just sit and read the manual; they want to fix the car! or create a computer animation, or write software, or bake some bread. Not all children just want pretend tins in a pretend shop in a corner of the classroom; for some, the point of reading the labels is to help people they love, and/or to do something genuinely useful in the world. Reading in life is enmeshed with life.

So I can’t help thinking that the media’s concentration on “what age” is a very one-dimensional look at the territory. There are other forms of diversity.

Despite a degree of imposed agenda which in retrospect I can criticise, I was relatively well catered for at school, inasmuch as my favourite reading was stories, and there were plenty available. But I’m thinking now of the children whose natural approach to reading would be entwined with other activities which they find intrinsically valuable: car maintenance, or baking, or helping their Mum or Dad at the shops. How do schools serve those children? What can school provide to “meet them where they are”?

Here, have an index…
Diversity of children reading
Varieties of reading
Learning that hinges on reading
Reading that’s all about the reading
Brain development and pre-reading skills
The ideal situation
Love of stories, or other relationships
Diversity in multiple dimensions

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