As a life-long bookworm, it came a bit of a shock to me when I noticed that my 6 year old daughter would do anything not to read. Indeed, we soon noticed that the kid was hiding her school reading books down the back of the settee (which in my household is a remarkably risky activity, unless you want your reading materials to be encrusted in marmite-toast and dead spiders.)
Initially, my reaction to this was; “blimey, what I crap parent I must be”, followed by “this is her dad’s fault – he’s always crowing that ‘I’ve seen the film, don’t need to read the book'” and then finally, I realised that something was indeed the matter. That maybe the child had dyslexia.
Problem was though – that the school wouldn’t get her tested. Told us that she was ‘too young’ to be diagnosed. ‘Poppycock’ – we were later told by an expert. The *real reason* for lack of help was that our girl was beautifully behaved in lessons. It turned out that the kids who cause maximum classroom disruption were the only ones able to access local authority funded testing.
So, we took her off for a private test. The tests involved lots more than just looking for dyslexia. Full IQ analysis and all of that gubbins. And whilst the cost of it brought tears to my eyes at the time, it was the best thing that we ever did for her. Because – yup – it found that her literacy ability was presenting itself as what we commonly refer to as ‘dyslexia.’ But we were also told that she was naturally smart, she could easily make good this gap of hidden impairment, if she got the right amount of help.
Now one of the reasons that the girl didn’t want to read, was because (she said) all of the school reading books were ‘well dull.’ And at this point, I had to concede that she was right. Because I had to sit and read a lot of them with her. I’m sorry to say that they were the same old same old formulaic fripperies. The children seemed to have none of the golden oldies that I remembered had sparked my own imagination as a 6 year old (Flat Stanley, Bobby Brewster, Just William, Amelia Jane, etc). So I asked a friend in the publishing industry “Why are there such few reprints of the brilliant books of the past? Why do schools insist on trying to feed our kids such badly written modern tosh?” After reminding me that this was a slightly unfair statement on my part, he went on to inform me that these days, schools only have access to the ‘bargain basement, cheap as chips’ stuff that the big publishing houses want to sell ASAP. And yeah, there are a few incredible ‘stand-outs’ that I don’t mind conceding to (Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, Annabel Pitcher) but in general…
Its more of a case of supply dictating demand. Of the big publishers force-feeding our kids the kind of genre/theme that worked last year. They don’t want to take risks on a new author with a different approach. Hence too many coloured fairies, young wizards and vampy-sorts wandering about. And amidst all of this, the parent of the dyslexic child (quite understandably) presumes that the school is providing sufficient stimulation for the kid who needs a bit more help to get into a book. But the school teachers lack the time to research which books work the best – and the schools – you guessed it – lack the money available to buy stuff that isn’t coming from the big booksellers.
My own personal answer to this dilemma was to hit charity shops, second hand book shops and eBay. To trawl them for the oldest, tattiest books that were deemed not to be ‘hot’ enough for a big publisher to want to do a new edition of. But which were a superb, captivating, beautifully written read. I don’t mind patting myself on the back for this one – the results paid off; but my girl also put the effort in (and oh yeah, banning the telly helped too. Evil? Moi?)
And child number two – my son – couldn’t have been any different. It’s the opposite story with him. It’s US having to HIDE books from HIM when we want him to get off his bum and to help around the house. He has been known to sit and read the instruction manuals for fridge-freezers when his favourites have been whipped away from him.
So I was fascinated to hear about the latest research from the University of Dundee which found a bit of a gender gap when it comes to kids and reading. You can read an interesting summary of it here – http://huntington.researchschool.org.uk/2016/10/29/what-are-our-children-reading/ but in short; lads tend to skim read more and choose less challenging books than girls. Of course, there could be a lot of reasons for this; perhaps boys are lazier and have a false confidence in their abilities, perhaps girls are more anxious at missing out on that all-important passage that could change their life and lead them to The Handsome Prince. I jest of course – but as a Governor of a high school, I’m also acutely aware that we are really struggling to treat our boys with fab and unusual reading material. And one of the problems with the research itself, is that it only focussed on the books that are included in the schools ‘Accelerated Reading Scheme’, which, if you have read the previous paragraphs, you will realise content-wise is dictated via the supply and ‘presumed demand market-monsters’ again.
So what do we do? How do we improve the literacy of kids who struggle to keep engaged and interested in reading? Those of you that know me already, will know that my first response will be ‘less of the e-devices for our kids, if you please; it’s a book for ’em or nowt!’ But I’m a realist and I know that this isn’t possible for a lot of us.
In an ideal world, I’d love to see classrooms stuffed with rich, high quality, old and new reading material. But I can’t see this happening right now, for the reasons above. In an ideal world, I’d like to say that there should be an effective partnership between parent and school; to spend time together nailing the specific problems that their child has in terms of literacy. But again…. it’s time. And it’s always money.
So I’m afraid, that this is one which will have to fall onto the shoulders of parents and relatives. One thing that many literacy studies over the years has shown us – and you might well be able to look at the reading habits of your own loved ones in order to bear this out – is that some of us prefer fiction and some of us prefer fact. And whilst I’d be chuffed to see all kids reading and enjoying my own book recommendations, that would be a bit… well. Stepford Wife-ish. And whilst I’d be thrilled to see all children reading every line on every page of every book; again. Where the hell would society be if we didn’t skim and scan and chuck the odd crappy book at the wall, every now and then?
One of the things that I discovered about my dyslexic daughter is that her eyes/ brain want to work so fast, that she tend to ‘word skip,’ and this means that she sometimes skims a book. In fact, we soon realised that she was reading our newspapers. We can’t get her away from our ‘History’ magazines and she’s even been pondering ‘Private Eye’. So we did a bit of research and tried her out with her own – and ‘The Week Junior’ has proven to be a big hit. http://theweekjunior.co.uk/ She gets to keep abreast of current affairs and she gets a rare and magical occurrence these days – real time post, from Bob The Postie!
Personally, I would love to see schools taking out subscriptions to magazines for kids; to start buying more fact-based publications. To accept donations of previously loved, less shiny-new but top quality books. Yes! To get laminating those magazines in case of Irn-Bru spillage (those teachers and their unhealthy lifestyles, eh?) I mean, why should we be discriminating against young people who don’t have the desire to read the youthful version of the likes of ‘War and Peace’? Why should there be one rule for them and one rule for the adult world?
So with Christmas rapidly approaching, why don’t we treat the youngsters in our life to a magazine subscription? And why don’t we nudge our schools to raise money for the same – as opposed to the usual ‘we need ipads’. And apologies if I sound like an old fuddy-duddy but – we can’t sit here moaning about literacy levels when the nippers are bombarded by devices that actively discourage them from slowing down and perusing the paper.
And on that note, I shall go and go and take a hammer to those nasty powerloom thingies. Be the death of our society, those things will.