Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How to Help Kids become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers

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
My mother read this to me!
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.
When it came time for me to read to my own children, many more titles were available than when I was child. Favourites were the “Ant and Bee” books and “What a Mess” by Frank Muir. I started Lucea Prep School in 1982, when there was no internet or Amazon, but that didn’t stop me from getting books. Because of the limited range in the local bookshops, I chose books from the Scholastic catalogue to build up a school library. I encouraged parents to buy books, too, but there was often a distressing delay in getting the books by post. I also borrowed books from Hanover Parish Library to read to the children.

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 
What I suggest is that, at every opportunity, parents request books for their children from friends and relatives, and that teachers and schools request books from organizations. There is then the question: “what books?” I recommend a selection of books by Jamaican and Caribbean authors, in addition to titles by authors from all over the world, which can be purchased on Amazon, if they are not available in local bookshops.
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.