I am worried that there is a problem with how we encourage reading in Secondary Schools. Too many young people, particularly boys, are turning away from reading when they're in their mid-teens, having a detrimental effect on their overall education and cultural development, but also excluding them from the sheer pleasure of a good book! I hope you don't mind, but to illustrate my point, I'm going to tell you a story...
I am a Reader, with a capital R. It is part of my identity, so much so that I feel it could be stamped on my passport. I've always loved reading, as a child I devoured books and I think my parents must have spent a small fortune on providing me with new stories to consume. My passion continued into school where English was my favourite subject, and beyond that to university, where I undertook an English Literature degree. Now I am lucky enough to work with books every day and I honestly couldn't be happier. I have always believed that reading is one of life's greatest pleasures. It never occurred to me that others might feel differently...
At university I found myself in halls of residence with a mix of people who had a whole range of interests. As we were getting to know one another, I wasn't surprised to discover that not everyone was as passionate about books as I was, but I was shocked to find that some people couldn't remember the last book they had read and that one person didn't think they had read a book since their core GCSE text (which they had loathed). As we talked further, I realised that losing interest in reading after school was quite common among the group, particularly among the men. I couldn't understand why this could be.
I met my partner at university and when I asked him what his thoughts were on reading, he told me he barely ever read and just didn't think reading was for him. He had read many books as a young child and in Primary School was described in school reports as a 'keen reader'. But things changed in Secondary School, why? He had studied To Kill a Mockingbird at GCSE, but he hadn't connected with it, and as the only text that his class focused on for months on end, he began to dread the idea of reading and stopped picking up books. I was desperate for him to fall back in love with reading, so bought a selection of books, both fiction and non-fiction, in subjects that I knew he was interested in - sports, history, and militaria. Just like that, he was a reader again!
The point of that story, and what I feel is becoming a pressing issue in Seconary Schools, is the intense focus on one text dictated by the curriculum. Some core texts over the last few years include Pride and Prejudice, Much Ado About Nothing, Jane Eye, Great Expectations, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye and Macbeth. Each of these titles are literary treasures and while some students are going to enjoy the chosen text, there are many others who may find it challenging, or perhaps they don't connect with the characters, they might dislike the writing style, or they simply don't find the story enjoyable! If a student is in this category, studying this title and this title alone, can become a dreaded chore that eventually sees them stop reading altogether. So what's the solution?
I'm not campaigning for an overthrow of the curriculum. I do think it's important that students have a knowledge and understanding of texts that are important in the canon of literature. But students also need to be encouraged to keep reading outside of the text they're studying. At the end of an English lesson, take five minutes to start a group discussion about what the students are reading in their free time. Encourage them to give each other recommendations and find other readers in the class who enjoy the same genre or subject matter. Sometimes, young people turn away from reading because they can't find the titles that are interesting to them. Introduce the students to different types of books - for example, if you've got an athlete in the class, show them the plethora of sport autobiographies available, or if you've got someone interested in pursuing a career in the sciences, point out all the fascinating scientific non-fiction that's out there!
Not everyone is going to be reader the way that I am a Reader. But, there are so many young people who stop reading because they are under the impression that 'it's not for them'. The sad reality is that there is so much content out there that these young people could connect with, they just haven't discovered it yet and once they stop reading they won't often try to find it. Keep your students engaged with reading by encouraging them to read other texts alongside the core text they're studying, talk to them about what they're reading and encourage them to talk to one another, and lastly, show them what's out there. Engaging students with reading isn't always going to be easy, but perseverance will make sure that our young people are able to enjoy and possibly contribute to the ever growing wealth of content the world has to offer.