Relucant Readers and Me
The first reluctant reader (REL-R) in my life was my brother. I could never understand why, when I had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from books in order to eat my dinner/get dressed/go to school, my brother was the complete opposite. He might pick up a book for a bit, but it would soon get tossed to one side in favour of footie or telly. Crackerjack was on. Or Tiswas. Or Liverpool were playing Man U. And to be honest, he was exactly the same with writing. My poor dear Ma could never get him to write anything. Whereas me – I’d be scribbling all over anything and everything that I could lay my mitts on. In fact however, my brother is now a bit of an avid reader. He is frighteningly clever and incredibly well-informed. There is a bit of a tale behind his journey into the world of the written word, but that’s his story and not one for me to tell (although I’ll give you a bit of a teaser – the slushy old ‘L word’ is involved … now *there’s* a motivation for anyone, eh?)
The next REL-R that I can remember? My dad. Dad never read to me or my bro when we were kids. “That’s your mother’s job,” I remember him saying when I once thrust a storybook at him. I did see him pick up the odd book every now and then; it would usually be a biography about a favourite comedian such as Spike or Les. But no, Dad didn’t do books. Although nowadays – as with my brother – Dad reads far more now than he ever did.
This was nothing to do with to him and the ‘L’ word though – (although Ma would probably appreciate a bunch of flowers every now and then, Pops). Rather, it was more to do with him having the time and the energy after he had been made redundant, to dip his toes into the waters of historical research. And I have to confess that I did feel ever so slightly wistful when I first saw him reading books to my own kids; he looked like he was actually quite enjoying it. Good old dad. Funny how the next generation can bring stuff out in an age-group, that their own children couldn’t.
The final REL-R – the one who led me onto this path of wanting to help other families, was my own daughter. I knew that she adored being read to from being a tiny tot. She seemed to love gazing at picture books and hearing fantastical tales. So, it shocked me when, at the age of 5, she began to hide her school reading books. Something was amiss. How could a child born of Ms Bookworm Supreme, not want to sit all day with her nose stuck in a book? There didn’t seem to be a problem at the intellectual level – if anything, she was streets ahead of most children at the infant school, certainly in relation to her verbal skills and her understanding. And her literacy rate was above average for her age group. But the kid would do anything to avoid reading. To avoid reading out loud. I tried sweet-talk, cajoling, bribery, hitting her repeatedly over the head with a book (okay – I’m exaggerating, don’t call social services) but nothing worked. I was about to resign myself to the old adage of ‘she dunt DO books’, when it struck me that maybe it was something else.
I remembered how my brother had behaved as a child. How he had suddenly fallen for books. How he needed a bit of a prodding, a bit later on in life. But … I didn’t want my daughter to have to wait for another ten years.
So, we parcelled the girl off for a test.
Dyslexia and Reading Impairments
It turned out that our daughter was doomed to be a REL-R because she has dyslexia. Now – I’m using the term ‘dyslexia’ here as a bit of a catch-all. Because when you look at the battles that the girl has with the written word and her learning abilities, it is quite a different picture for her than it is for others who live with dyslexia. She struggles less with the words jumping around on a page or the need for different coloured backgrounds than others do. Her form of dyslexia is more about word-skipping, scanning speed and word formation-recognition. She makes enormous ‘assumptions’ about how a sentence will end, or what a word actually is.
We suspected this at the age of 5 – and now, at the age of 13, this is more evident than ever. I often say to her that if she had been born into another culture, another language – then this difference would not be so apparent. Now, don’t get me wrong – I love the english language, its richness and diversity – but for someone with a reading impairment, indeed – for many people who do not have english as their mother-tongue and who are learning it for the first time – the english language is … utterly evil (I tried my best not to swear there – can you tell?) It is full of inconsistencies. Full of stupid and pointless, historical rules. Imposed by People and Places that quite frankly, should no better – but who chose to go with anachronisms.
Ok – slightly-political rant over now, you’ll be relieved to hear. In short, for the vast majority of the population, learning written english as a child presents no problems. But for a minority – and I would hasten to add, a very intelligent minority (as the average dyslexic has a higher IQ than the average member of the population) it is a very frustrating language to learn.
Word Wars – A New Hope?
From watching my own daughter and from getting to know many other dyslexics over the years, I know that many belonging to this category of REL-R’s share certain traits. One of them is that they take language rather more literally than others do. The other thing that my dyslexic chums seem to share is a preference for logical patterns, they want to know the point of things – to crack the code, if you like. One day, scientists will probably tell us that there is an area of the brain that dyslexics are naturally more developed with than the rest of us – and I for one very much suspect that this (below) is often happening within their brains, when you try to get a dyslexic to read the english language;
“the logicality of how this is being presented to me makes no sense whatsoever. And the story ain’t riveting enough for me to persist with it. Huh. I’m off to play Candycrush instead.”
In short, I believe strongly that dyslexics or ‘those with a reading impairment’ and who are therefore REL-R are actually not impaired per se. What impairs them is our use of the written english language. What impairs them is the expectations and the constraints and the shoddy approaches to reaching them with inadequate written material and zippy enough stories and ill-informed teaching approaches. It impairs them. And it exhausts them.
Dyslexics are not the problem. And neither is dyslexia an excuse for not learning to love reading.
I will rephrase this. Dyslexia of-the-english-language is a REASON behind running away from literature and claiming ‘I don’t do books or reading.’ It is NOT an excuse.
And it is up to us adults to support our younger readers to overcome this and to turn our younger generation into avid little book-worms. As my daughter is now.
Paucity of Materials
When I first suggested to my daughter’s school that she might be dyslexic, I was told that – at the age of 6 – she was too young to be able to tell this. However, me being slightly stubborn and not wanting to give up on the girl, I dragged her off for a private test and … well. This was where the journey really began. We got very little help from school. We had to find our own networks and friendship groups of people who had experienced the same issues with their child and who had refused to give up on the kid growing a reading muscle or to simply admit defeat and say that they will be an REL-R for life.
I began to notice just how utterly dull, narrow and unimaginative the reading books were, that my girl brought home from school. Basically, it seemed that if you were a little girl and not into fairies or pink things, well. You were up the creek, without a paddle. And if you were a boy? If you weren’t into wizards or football? Tough luck my son. At first I thought that all of this was some sort of secretive gender-stereotyping exercise on behalf of said schools. But then I got chatting to a few pals in the publishing industry – and to the purse-holders in education – who explained a few things to me;
- Schools have nigh-on diddly-squat when it comes to money available for reading books. They also don’t have the time to be able to research fantastic books that win kids over.
- The publishing industry is horribly conservative and plays it safe when it comes to taking a chance on a new author. They prefer a formula, a series, that they know previously sold for them. Even when it is rather dull and erm, badly written, so that …
- They parcel up the books that they want/need to sell off – fast – to schools, at discounted rates so that …
- The imaginative, edgy books that are less mainstream, that cost a wee bit more than the discounts offered by the big publishing houses – cannot afford to be purchased by schools, so that …
- Dyslexic/reading impaired kids who desperately need the more unusual and captivating books – simply don’t get to see them.
What does this mean for the parent or the relative of a child? It means that we cannot afford to rely on our schools if we want to produce great readers – if we want to help our kids with dyslexia or a reading impairment to move beyond the sub-average expectations that will be placed on them by school or by society.
I’ll be frank with you;
You have to do it yourself.
And I don’t like to hear this little fact and you won’t like to hear this little fact. But don’t worry! You aren’t actually on your own with trying to help your child to move beyond being stuck forever as an REL-R.
There are countless people and resources out there who can actually help you to do this for the REL-R in your life.
My Reluctant Readers Help Page contains lots of resources and guidance – which I’ve put together – for nowt.
Because there is honestly, no greater gift that you can give to your child …
Than the love of reading.