You don’t often hear of a non-fiction book being hard to put down, and pulling at your heart strings, but that was my experience with “The Reading Zone – HOW TO HELP KIDS BECOME SKILLED, PASSIONATE, HABITUAL, CRITICAL READERS ” by Nancie Atwell, which endorsed for me what I have always taken for granted – the value of reading.
My mother used to read to us from as far back as I can remember – Beatrix Potter stories, Alison Uttley’s ‘Little Grey Rabbit’, The Wind in the Willows, Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series. But she had a harder time turning me into a skilled, passionate, habitual, critical reader. Unlike my sister, I wasn’t too keen on the titles my mother picked out for me. I suspect that they were above my reading level at
the time and that I wasn’t interested in the content. I liked to read stories
by Enid Blyton, whom my parents regarded as sexist and racist. I was oblivious
of this, although I knew they didn’t like her books. They weren’t in favour of
comics either, probably sharing the
view of The Reverend John Marcus Harston
Morris who “decried the violence and sensationalism of American crime
and horror comics and their effects on British children”,
and who started his own comic, “Eagle”,
which they allowed us to read. I don’t remember being captivated by Dan Dare or
space travel as a result. I’m still not keen on books about exploring the
universe. The books that turned me into a reader were C.S. Forester’s
“Hornblower” Series. I also enjoyed historical novels for children by Geoffrey
Trease. I have a vague recollection of his making a visit to our school and
being disappointed by his appearance and lack-luster presentation.
|My mother read this to me!|
Atwell’s premise, I had seen in other writings before, is that
“frequent voluminous reading is the single activity that consistently correlates with high levels of performance in standardized tests of reading ability.” She follows this up with real life examples of how frequent voluminous reading is achieved in her school, Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) Edgecomb, Maine, where “teachers hope that along the way students will become smarter, happier, more just and compassionate people because of the worlds they experience in books.” Doesn’t that describe what we would like our students to become in Jamaica? Atwell says “The only surefire way to induce a love of books is to invite students to select their own.” And “…free choice of books should be a young reader’s right, not a privilege.” “When kids are reading stories that are interesting to them, when books are written at their independent reading levels, comprehension is direct, they understand.” They don’t have to be taught ‘comprehension’.
Most of Atwell’s compelling argument critiques the system in the US, but the methods and outcomes are equally applicable in Jamaica. Unfortunately, very few children here see any books apart from what is supplied at school. Only a small percentage of eligible children actually use the Parish Libraries. School libraries vary, but few of them have a budget and depend mainly on donated books. Class libraries are few and far between. Most parents cannot afford to buy children’s literature. They are hard-pressed to buy the expensive workbooks required on school book lists. Effectively, by failing to provide a choice of books for our children, we are denying them the opportunity to become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers. Two things must happen for us to turn this situation around:
1. Convince teachers and parents that children who read for pleasure do in fact perform better at school than those who don’t.
2. Increase the supply of books in parish, school and class libraries.
|My book for 9-13 year-olds|
The problem is to select appropriate titles from the avalanche of available children’s books. Nancie Atwell’s book directed me to lists of books recommended by children who attend her school . As she says, the field of children’s literature changes very quickly, so she herself doesn’t recommend books. The children’s recommendations are updated annually. I have begun to go through this list and in subsequent blogs I will highlight my findings.