Books bombarded his shoulders, his arms, his upturned face. A book alighted, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering. In the dim, wavering light, a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon. In all the rush and fervour, Montag had only an instant to read a line, but it blazed in his mind for the next minute as if stamped there with fiery steel. ~ Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
I’ve been thinking a lot about reading recently. Learning to read, teaching to read, analysing what we read. And books. In part this is because I am immersed, always, in story. Partly it’s contextual. Recently in Australia, the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and News Corp have partnered to launch a February ‘Raise a Reader’ campaign to encourage parents to read to their children, in an effort to improve the literacy and vocabulary of students entering school. Additionally, with school going back in Australia this week, there have been click-bait media pieces which paint either parents or teachers as the villains of children’s education. Linda Graham reminds us, though, that we need parent-teacher partnerships, not polarisation.
In this post I attempt to weave together some of my non-linear, multi-layered thoughts on reading and books. It is parents and teachers (and role models and family members and libraries and society) who can help the perceived value of reading and the effective development of literacy. Discussions of literacy, reading and books should be about effective strategies, but also about joy, play and power.
I’ve been surrounded by books my whole life. My family moved a lot, but my childhood homes were linked together by the presence of books. They were sometimes (often?) more plentiful than possessions. I could take unexplored books off any shelf, without having to check the rating or ask permission. As a family, we went to the library, one night a week, when we would each return the previous week’s stack of books and take out a new stack. Science fiction for my mum. Crime fiction for my dad. And whatever books we kids wanted, changing as our tastes changed over time. My grandfather’s study was a wonderland of ancient paper and earthy leather tomes. Books in my childhood were something enjoyable. They were individual escapes but also connected us through the practice of reading, and talking about our reading.
The purpose of Newspeak was … to make all other modes of thought impossible…. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought. ~ 1984, George Orwell
Since I became an English and Literature teacher I’ve spent my work days surrounded by books (now sometimes electronic). I get to read and talk about books for a living. My Year 12 class is currently looking at dystopian texts, some of which explore the power of language to both control and free us. George Orwell’s 1984 explores the idea that minimizing language and vocabulary can diminish and control thought. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 explores a world where books are seen as powerful weapons of knowledge which threaten government control and societal compliance. Yet both novels also show the power of language to free and the power of human thought to prevail. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World explores how suppressing books and controlling stories of the past can control the present. Our class has discussed the announcement of the Oxford word of 2015 as an emoji, and whether the distilling of language into pictorial representations is helpful or hindering to communication and thought. We’ve looked at words which exist only in a particular language and wondered whether you need to have a word in order to experience a thought or concept.
Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces. ~ 1984, George Orwell
Part of my Head of English roles at three schools involved leading reading curricula and pedagogy, sometimes from the early years up until the final year of school. David Sousa’s (2014) How the Brain Learns is a good introduction to the world of the alphabetic principle, phonemes, graphemes, encoding, decoding, and the cognitive neuroscience how of learning to read. Sir Jim Rose’s (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading recommended that the best approach to teaching beginning readers includes discrete, high-quality, multi-sensory, systematic phonics work. It also promoted the use of sharing books, songs and rhyme as ways to develop children’s positive attitudes to literacy. Synthetic phonics is certainly important for children, but so is instilling enjoyment of reading. Always an advocate for balance, in debate and in teaching, I don’t think that phonics and whole language need to be polarised approaches. Systematic phonics instruction explicitly teaches students how to decode and encode language and to be successful readers, but it doesn’t teach them to be readers who value and enjoy reading.
In my high school English classrooms, and in student work, I can tell those students who have devoured books through their childhoods and those who haven’t. In Teaching the Brain to Read (2008), Judy Willis applies brain research to the teaching of reading. She discusses the importance of pleasure and motivation in learning to read, and the role of dopamine in learning. Students need choice, variety, and enjoyment of reading, not only drills and explicit instruction.
When I became a parent, out came my childhood books, including tattered Golden Book volumes. Our shelves at home filled with early readers, picture books, storybooks and favourite novels. As recommended by the recent Australian ‘Raise a Reader’ campaign, we have read to our children since birth. Now 3 and 5 years old, this year in Kindergarten and Pre-Primary, our children are being exposed to the Jolly Phonics program at their local school. They bring home sets of words, in slowly spiralling levels of difficulty, to sound out and learn. They are read to at school and they take books off the shelves of their classroom. They visit the school library with their teachers and the local library with us.
The minimum we read to our kids at home is two books at bedtime. Often we read more than this in a day. This week my eldest started Pre-Primary and on his first visit to the school library he brought home a book which had 223 big pages. Between my husband and I, we read 80 pages the first night. The next two days the first thing our son did when he woke up in the morning was to run and get this book. We finished it tonight, three days after he took it out, and both boys have chosen to sit and listen to every page. This amount of reading wasn’t our choice as parents, but our son’s, so excited was he to read the stories within. He’s hoping we can read the whole thing again before he has to return it.
So as I find myself developing readers at home, being a reader myself, and exploring reading with my students (not to mention academic reading and nerdy reading for my own learning), I find the multi-layeredness of reading too unwieldy to tie down into a simple formula. There are systematic and sensible ways to conceptualise reading; these are, of course, important. And then there are the intangibles: the magic, inhaling the booky perfume (released by the glorious chemical breakdown of lignin and cellulose), the sound and feel of turning pages, and the internal world which comes alive when a book has grabbed you and pulled you deep into its world.