A Controversial Position

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As an English teacher, it’s a pretty safe assumption that I enjoy reading. To torture a cliche, I love getting lost in a good book: as busy as my workload keeps me, I always try to make time for some pleasure reading. In the English department, we all have a laminated sign on our door that we can update with what we’re currently reading (Lady Chatterley’s Lover if anyone is curious) and we’ve spent a lot of lunchtimes chatting about our favourite books. I surprised one of my senior students by practically leaping out of my chair with joy when he asked me for some reading recommendations, and I love talking to kids about what book they’ve got.

You probably know about all the benefits associated with reading, including how good it is for your vocabulary and your ability to empathise. So encouraging children to read seems like a thoroughly good idea. But here is where I take a slightly controversial position for an English teacher. Sure, reading is fantastic. And sure, I would be over the moon if I could get every single one of my children to enjoy reading as much as I do. But at the end of the day, not everybody likes reading, and forcing children into doing it when they aren’t interested has the potential to do more harm than good.

My brother is the perfect example. I have spent his entire life trying to get him into reading and it has not worked a jot. Going along the traditional lines of ‘he just hasn’t found the right book yet’, I threw everything I could think at him, from The Hound of the Baskervilles after he enjoyed the film, to Jurassic Park because it had dinosaurs in it. Nothing got him interested, and I eventually gave up. But is he any the worse for not liking reading? I would argue no. He loves films and music which has filled the vocabulary void nicely and his critical faculties are none the weaker for the fact that he’s never had to apply them to a good book. He can argue, empathise, communicate and engage as effectively as I can. All my constant shoving had done was turn him off to the pleasures of reading.

My brother at home is one thing, but a classroom of kids is another. Forcing children who aren’t interested into reading can have disastrous consequences. At one of my placement schools, junior classes began each English lesson with ten minutes of silent personal reading and had one library period a week. For the kids who loved reading, this wasn’t a problem: they would take out their books and read happily. But for those who didn’t, getting them settled and quiet was incredibly difficult. At best, they would sit and do nothing for the ten minutes; at worst, they would use the idle time to argue with you, to act out, to distract the other children….After that, getting them engaged in your lesson was nigh on impossible. The opening moments of the class are vital because it’s there that you get their attention and interest in what they’ll be doing. If you’ve spent the first ten minutes of class doing nothing because you don’t like reading, then how energised and interested are you going to be for the rest? And if you’ve spent that time arguing with a kid who refuses to sit in silence as you’ve asked, what frame of mind does that put you in as a teacher before you begin? There are other ways for teachers to develop vocabularies and encourage empathy in the classroom without the risk of disengaging kids who don’t like reading. And in a world of Netflix, social media and other screen based joys for kids to entertain themselves with, reading is arguably having a tough enough time keeping up without turning potential fans off by stuffing it down their throats when they’re not interested.

So as much as I love reading, and as wonderful and beneficial as it can be, I am not going to be that teacher at parents’ night who prescribes reading as the miracle cure for doing well at school/life. Kids will either find the right book at the right time, or they won’t: either way, forcing them into the library is not the way to turn them onto the pleasure of a good book.