In celebration of World Book Day, Louise Boothman, Teacher of English reflects back on a time before digital distractions and explains why we need to be encouraging children to read more...
Back in 1980 something, the Casio Databank really was a thing of wonders. With its red numbers, tiny-but-functional calculator and reassuringly Space 1999
aesthetic, it really was the birthday present of choice. We were confident that there was more technology on our wrists than went into getting Neil Armstrong to the moon. We were probably right. The flashing 24-hour clock – no hands for us, thanks – was a taste of the future and unpinned a lot of our spy game antics; press the back light and talk into your Casio, imagining that it had a walkie-talkie function, press the other button and a zip line would emerge. One friend sagely predicted that the little digital screen would one day be a tiny telly! As if. Imagine being able to watch Grange Hill
on your wrist and radio your friends via your Casio…
Had I been given a sneak preview of the wristwear habitually sported nowadays, I think it would have blown my tiny mind. Everything and anything, that flashes, beeps and distracts, is available – if not on your wrist, then certainly on something that fits in your pocket and is little bigger than a match box… Had I had a smartphone at 13 would I have been quite so interested in books? The internet is full of endless rabbit holes to fall down, with click leading to click, so easy, so passive. Is it any wonder that reading for pleasure seems to be becoming something of a lost art, side-lined as niche and antiquated against such alluring technology? The first generation of tablet-savvy children are coming through our doors and it’s increasingly hard to match the lure of the smartphone, the laptop, the tablet or the smartwatch with the printed word. If I had a penny for every time a parent has lamented: ‘My child does not read anything, they used to love reading at prep school’, I would currently be mulling over this thorny perennial from the deck of my super yacht, but as it stands, we are all trying our best to work out how we make analogue sexy in an almost entirely digitised world. It’s tough.
Books are enchanting, they can take you anywhere, all from the comfort of your armchair, but they don’t sing for everyone. The allure of children’s fiction, with their gorgeous illustrations, all too soon ebbs away as the text grows denser, the pictures vanish and the pages contract down to the size of a house brick. This progression to ‘young adult fiction’ usually chimes with a move to senior school, the arrival of a new mobile phone and the marvel that is puberty. There’s a lot going on. Couple this with the boarding environment; deliberately busy and full of hustle, there’s not always time and space to be quiet and reflective. Besides which, when you do wind down of an evening, some well-meaning adult will bang your lights out at 9.50pm, so that thwarts most potential bookworms…
Reading requires time and space and quiet. It also requires a text that really grabs you. It seems a long time since the reign of the Goosebumps series, where obsessed children had resorted to stealing the next exciting edition of the horror series from bookshops. In the 2011 riots the only shop to remain blissfully ‘unlooted’ was Waterstones. The windows were fully intact, as nobody wanted to lift the contents. Not even the Moomin pencil cases. To be considered a ‘big reader’ (i.e. someone who reads a lot), Waterstones have set the bar at four books a year.
So how do we turn this around? It seems to me, that just like the resurgent vogue for vinyl records, ‘The Book’ is ripe for a hipster makeover. E-readers are all very well, but I have little truck for reading a book on your laptop or phone. I like paper in my grubby mit, I like to be able to flick back and read a favourite passage, and I like knowing how many pages I have left for the unknotting to unfold. So, let’s go old school and have a real, actual, physical book. We also have to model good reading habits; if you are endlessly noodling on your tablet, why should your children not do the same? Let them catch you reading. To that end, if you spot a member of staff reading in main hall, it’s all part of our ‘Visible Reader Scheme’, as spearheaded by our very own Will Ings. Designed to set a good example and flag the importance of reading for pleasure, we hope to get some older pupils onboard too in the coming weeks.
Emma Minter, our librarian, is full of plans and schemes to encourage reading; do visit Ashmore and see the work she has done. Now open to all, not just the preserve of sixth formers, there are some beautiful books to borrow; Emma has a wonderful eye and her displays are vibrant and carefully curated. Welcoming and cosy, the range of non-fiction she has brought in is particularly strong. In addition, Emma has also ploughed ahead with the introduction of the Accelerated Reader scheme, which places the emphasis on at least five, half-hour reading sessions a week. Hsms have been instrumental in facilitating this, while the English department are chivvying away to ensure that our Ds complete the accompanying comprehension quiz every time our pupils read one of the recommended books.
While there is a satisfaction to reading everything by a particular author, the Accelerated Reader homes in on the pupil’s reading age and encourages stretch and challenge, to help the reading age ‘accelerate’. We also have a Reading Passport, where D, C and B pupils are rewarded for reading x number of books in a term. Equally, in English we are pushing the Bedrock vocabulary builder to help give pupils the academic vocabulary they need to succeed; if you don’t have the vocab, you really can’t access the curriculum.
But reading is not just the key to academic success, it’s about your mental health, too. Reading to escape, reading to understand how other people tick and putting a hand across time to make a connection with someone from a different age is a most powerful thing. Reading shouldn’t be like taking your medicine; it’s good for you, but you don’t really like it. Being lent a book by someone you respect is a tremendous incentive to read it; it’s great to see some of our pupils reading challenging material that has been recommended by their tutors and I always enjoy having recommendations from my tutorial pupils. Thanks to one notable, I have just read my very first Agatha Christie. What can I say? I’m a late adapter.
In such a busy environment, it sometimes seems decadent to sit down with a book. And there is also the delightful contradiction that while reading is an activity that requires some form of isolation, it is also the very thing that helps you feel connected. I’ll leave my summation to F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’
Books are wondrous, have your fill.