As we reach the end of the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book Week, which has run since 1946, an important yet often forgotten lesson is simply reading for pleasure.
Education Review spoke to senior lecturer at Monash University, Dr Jennifer Rennie, who is also the president of the Australian Literacy Educators Club.
A primary school teacher at heart, she argues "reading for pleasure needs to be back on the table". Yes, the skills are important too, but enjoyment is where it all begins.
You can listen to the podcast above or read the transcript below.
ER: Jennifer, much has been made in the national media about the importance of teaching phonics, say, text types, and grammar, but have we risked children's enjoyment of reading itself?
JR: I'm not sure we've risked children's enjoyment of reading through having a focus on teaching things such as phonics, text types, and so on and so forth. All of these skills, and others, actually do help children to become better readers and writers, which is important for reading both in and out of school. However, I think it's a matter of balance in how we teach these various skills and knowledge.
Too often a great deal of the teaching, particularly when we think about the current push for a synthetic approach to the teaching of phonics, happens in contexts where it's actually not meaningful to students. And often an overemphasis on particular skills is done at the expense of other important things, such as reading for pleasure. I think if we relate this to other things we learn outside of school, we almost always do our learning within a context that's meaningful.
If you take the example of learning to drive, we don't do this when we're not actually driving a real car, so learning about the clutch, the accelerator, and how the break works happens while you're actually driving. And I don't think I recall learning that while sitting somewhere outside of a car. So, the point is that if we're going to teach things related to reading, this teaching actually needs to happen within the context of using good literature or texts. So often when we do this, we teach these skills, we tend to use texts that are purposefully designed to teach these skills, and these texts are often things such as a levelled series of books that are mass produced and don't really mimic the enjoyment that we get from books written by good authors that have enjoyable storylines. And here in Australia, we're blessed to have so many fabulous authors that write excellent material for children.
So going back to that question around whether we risk or sacrifice children's enjoyment of reading, I think the danger is related to having too much of an emphasis on these skills and knowledge, which are important for readers, but forgetting the idea that reading can in fact be an enjoyable experience, and this can become lost.
And this is of particular relevance for children who find reading difficult, because we often spend many hours with them learning about these skills in isolation. So, the idea that teaching students that reading can be a pleasurable experience needs to be part of our curriculum in the same way that teaching the other various skills and knowledge that they require. I don't think it's putting children's enjoyment at risk, but it is if we actually put too much emphasis on that instead of the whole practice of reading for enjoyment, which is what most of us do when we read.
Do you think in this diagnostic, performance driven culture that's really taken over education in, say, the last, decade, our kids suffering in not being able to simply read for pleasure? Do you think that that ability to just simply read for pleasure's being taken away from them?
Again, I don't believe that children are suffering because of this performance driven environment. Again, it's about the emphasis that's placed on that. As an ex-primary school teacher of 14 years, assessment's important, because otherwise we actually can't plan meaningful learning experiences for students. But we need to get the balance right. Teachers are increasingly required to assess students from mandates that come from the international level, when we think about the PISA tests, the national level, and at the state and local level, and this is taking a great deal of precious time away from teachers. So we need to be sensible about how we approach this.
An example is this proposed national phonics screening test that the government is thinking of mandating and bringing in. Many teachers, and many good teachers, that I know do this work as a matter of course, but to sort of impose national or nationwide testing on them in relation to students' phonological knowledge, it makes it more high stakes. When something is high stakes, of course it's going to take time away from teachers. Good teachers know what their students can do. And to have a standardised test that determines what they already know, takes away valuable time. And it also reduces their confidence in their ability to actually say what they know their kids know. And it takes time away from doing, heaven forbid, other important things such as teaching, and in this case activities that promote reading for pleasure.
So, reading for pleasure is something that we need to include in our curriculum for all students. I remember my last year of teaching; I had a year nine class, so I moved from primary to secondary, and I had students all day, I had them for literacy, numeracy ... or English, maths, science and humanities. And by the end of that school year, I had 15-year-old boys predominantly, so I had a class of about 17 that were laying on the floor at my feet as I read to them every day for about half an hour. So, I'm not just talking about young children here, either, I'm just talking about all children. So, we actually need to make time, or allow time, to read to children, and allow time for children to read independently, so they can indulge themselves in the experience.
It seems like it starts with pleasure and then all these other kinds of skills come a little bit later.
Absolutely. If I take the example of my son, I read to him and my daughter every day since they were born, and he was reading before he went to school, and I didn't spend any time really teaching him. So, I'm not saying this happens for all children, but children learn a lot by simply being read to. But for many kids, they actually have to teach them that reading can in fact be an enjoyable experience, because not all children have that experience before they come to school. So, I think parents have a responsibility here too, to read to their children. And as a parent, I think these were some of the most memorable experiences that I had with my own children, when we were actually reading together.
I'm a former English teacher as well. What I noticed is that the students who struggled the most often came from households where there wasn't much cultural capital, the books, the access to museums, and things like that. So, they've got to be exposed to those kinds of things, or else they're kind of behind, in a way. It's hard.
I'm involved in a project at the moment where I'm working with teenage mums who have left school and had children, and so part of the literacy program that I'm working on with these group of young mothers is teaching them about reading to their children. We have a series of six workshops that we work through with these young parents, and it's really good to do. And I have this mantra, and I think Mem Fox was the first person to talk about this, is that all it takes 10 minutes a day, just 10 minutes of the parents' time, having that enjoyable time with their young children, and it makes a huge amount of difference in terms of how those children sit when they first enter school, around their knowledge of reading literacy and so on and so forth.
In terms of those more kind of creative or soft skills, what other things does reading teach us?
Reading for pleasure is important and it teaches children lots of things. And I just want to also point out, reading for pleasure is a very personal thing, and it doesn't necessarily have to involve reading fiction, for instance. So many of us, we get pleasure out of reading the latest 4-wheel drive magazine, or the daily newspaper, or skimming the news online, but we do it for pleasure and we do it because we actually enjoy doing that. So reading is like anything else that we do in this world. The more that we do it, the better we get at it. So, I don't ever think that a reader becomes an accomplished reader.
Like if I think about my university students, when they start having to read academic articles, they have to learn new things about reading. We never get to a point where we're completely proficient at reading. But if we ignite a passion for reading in our classrooms, then students are more likely to do that too, because children learn from their teachers, they learn from the people around them. If there's a culture of the fact that reading for pleasure is a good thing to do, then children will often catch that. But in terms of what reading for pleasure helps readers do, it develops vocabulary. The vocabulary that we find in books is different from the words that we use in everyday conversation. So, students who have wider vocabulary actually become much better readers and writers, because they have a lot more resources at hand. It also allows us to enter worlds where we would not ordinarily go. George Martin famously said that a reader lives a thousand lives before they die, whereas a non-reader only lives once.
It allows us to imagine, it sparks that creativity, it also allows us to explore ideas and issues in a safe way. There is a beautiful book which I think it's called Jenny's Angel, and it deals with that issue of a death in the family, and it does it in such a beautiful way that you can explore some of those things that all of us may go through, in a relatively safe way, because it's separated from the right now and reality. So, it allows kids to explore a whole heap of things. There are fabulous books written about the environment, there are books that are written about refugees, there are books that are written about issues to do with social justice and it gives kids a safe space to explore those things.
So it develops all of those things which are part of what good readers do, and all that knowledge and stuff that good readers need. But the other thing, it's relaxing, it's enjoyable, and it allows us to take ourselves away from the stresses of life. I mean, I travel a lot for work, but the only thing I actually love about travel is that I know I have one hour, or two hours, or four hours to indulge myself in a good book, and most of my reading is done on aeroplanes. So, I think reading for pleasure, it actually makes us better readers.
We all remember that book where we sort of think, "I just want to keep reading." I mean, there's a couple of those that I've read in a day or over two days, because you just want to go back into that story and that world or that space. I've got to admit, and it sounds a little bit hypocritical here, but I was not a great reader in school, and it wasn't really until my late teen years that I actually discovered that reading could in fact be pleasurable. But I think it's something, as a teacher of many, many years, and something, as a teacher of pre-service teachers now, it's something that I really try to get across to them, this idea of finding yourself as a reader, and the idea that we really need to do everything we can, every year that we have a new class, to try and get every child reading. And that was something that I did every year that I had a new class, was actually finding something that my students individually could connect with, so that they were in fact reading, because I know if they don't read they turn into this group of readers that I also do work with, who are readers who struggle. And oftentimes they're in upper and lower secondary, and most of the time the students have reading levels that go back to about year four, and that's because they stopped doing it at that point.
It makes school hard. If they're not good readers, it actually makes school quite difficult for them, because it's not just about their English or literacy classes, but they need to read in all of their classes in order to succeed.
Finally, we've touched on this idea earlier, of cultural capital and how important it is to literacy. One of the main challenges facing indigenous literacies, especially in remote community, is the lack of cultural capital like books in the home. Do you think more needs to be done to address this?
There are many cultures and groups of people in the world, not just indigenous folk in Australia, who don't have the same access to books as other children do. I think something we should note, though, is that this doesn't necessarily make the experiences that these children might have any less important, and I definitely wouldn't describe them as having a lack of cultural capital. Maybe it may be a lack of access to books, but they have a lot of other things. And I do quite a lot of work in remote places in Australia. So, in many cultures where books are not the norm, the children have rich experiences of storytelling, and stories are really a very important part of their culture. However, we do know that children who don't have access to books often don't fare as well as children who do, in mainstream schooling. So, there is a great deal of work going on in this space and I would agree that a lot more needs to be done. I mean, if you think about an organisation that's doing fabulous things in this space, that would be the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and they do a lot of work in remote indigenous communities across Australia. I think they've gifted over 350,000 culturally appropriate books to over 280 different communities. They've also published over 80 books written by various communities in children's first language. And these things are really important, as children in these communities need books that they can relate to.
Literacy in their first language, when children are very young, is incredibly important, because there's a lot of research that says about children learning to become literate in their first language is an important foundational thing, in terms of taking on English literacy. But, you're right, a lot more work needs to be done. There are fabulous little things that go on in lots of different communities, like one of the communities I work in has a mobile preschool that goes around and visits homes. There are a lot of really good things happening, but yes, you're right, that whole practice of reading written books to children is not something that's perhaps as ... popular is the wrong word, but it's not something that happens that often in some of these communities.
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