In their December 2011 paper, The Gift of Reading, the National Literacy Trust reported that “reading for pleasure has been revealed as the most important indicator of the future success of a child”.
There’s certainly no shortage of books aimed at children and young people – even if you ignore those featuring romantically-inclined vampires. Children’s fiction and Young Adult fiction are thriving in a post Harry Potter world and yet the National Literacy Trust has revealed shocking statistics such as one in three children do not own a book and one in four leave primary school practically illiterate.
A survey carried out as part of the Ofsted Report: Moving English Forward (published in March 2012) found that “too few schools gave enough thought to ways of encouraging the love of reading” and the report recommended that “all schools should develop policies to promote reading for enjoyment throughout the school.”
But what of schools that already do promote reading for pleasure; that ensure children are inspired to become readers for life, not just because of government initiatives and statistics on ‘attainment’ – although these are not neglected – but because they believe that the children in their care should be enriched by their education? To find out, I visited a school in Wood Green, North London to have a chat with some of the pupils and School Librarian/Learning Resources Manager, Sabrina Elliott.
St Thomas More Catholic School or ‘Tommy More’, as it is affectionately known, has a well-stocked and well-managed library which is of vital importance to young people who don’t have access to books at home. The library here is a large, pleasant and welcoming space, bright and sunny when the weather obliges. The school was a mixed comprehensive until Academy Status was awarded on 1 March 2013. Led by Executive Headteacher, Martin Tissot, since September 2010, it was the top performing school in Haringey in 2012.
Sabrina Elliott has been at the school for seven years and she created the library from next to nothing. “264 books – that’s all I had – and cobwebs. It wasn’t an active library: it was a meeting room.” Since then she’s been busy and the number of transactions since the library system was put in place, in April 2006, now stands at 12,313.
So passionate is she that the children have the books they want, she has at times bought them herself, scouring local supermarkets for ‘buy one, get one free’ bargains. This is how the Twilight books made their way into the library. She adds that she has always had a passion for books and used to spend hours in her local library when she was growing up. That the children respect the room is a matter of professional pride for her. “The Library belongs to the children. This room is about them only. There’s no graffiti, no gum.”
The majority of pupils are from the local area and many come from around Broadwater Farm. Sabrina says, “We challenge stereotypes here at Tommy More, for instance boys are my top readers. As a school we make sure that every pupil is looked after and that they have what is needed to make them progress.”
She has arranged for me to meet with and talk to a selection of students from a range of years and I ask them what books they like to read, what they’ve been reading recently and why they read. It is worth mentioning that many of the students, including the ‘top readers’ Marina and Lukasz, have English as an additional language. There are over 40 languages represented at the school.
Lukasz, who is now in Year 10, started things off. His favourite genre is horror. He likes tension in a story and his favourite writer is Darren Shan. In complete contrast, he says he wants to read Dante’s Inferno next and reveals that, a few weeks ago, he was reading The Odyssey – for pleasure, not for school work.
Massimo, in Year 11, is proud of the fact that he was number one in the top ten readers in Year 9. He says he likes all types of books but especially those about sport and funny books – like Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series – but his favourites are the Hunger Games books. He read Of Mice and Men as part of a school project recently but found after a while that he was also reading it for pleasure.
Anthony, in Year 8, is a Harry Potter fan but also likes the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Temi, in Year 8, likes “tense” horror and reads up to five books a week. John, in Year 11, says he likes the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness because of the complex characters and the fact that the stories bring up some big ideas. He says he is interested in reading about “different perspectives”.
Chris is in Year 8 and likes Darren Shan and comic books – but not just to read – he’d like to draw his own too. So far this means copying the pictures in existing comics but he’s working on it.
Sabrina mentions that the library has a varied comic book and graphic novel section including more challenging works like V For Vendetta and Watchmen down to Charlie Brown and Garfield and, of course, Darren Shan. She has plans to get the pupils creating their own comics and graphic novels soon using a website she’s found called comicmaster.org.uk
Chris adds that he also likes long books. Julia, in Year 7, reads mostly fantasy but recently enjoyed the Hunger Games books and is currently on the second book of the Inkheart trilogy. She likes books with a mystery to them but will also read comics, especially, Manga. She, along with Nikola, another Year 7 and Lukasz, are Library Leaders – students who volunteer to help with the labelling and cataloguing. Nikola’s particular favourite is Diary of a Wimpy Kid and she likes books that make her want to know what happens next.
Another Year 7, Abigail, says that her favourite book, The Garbage King takes her on a journey to a different world and makes her feel what other people are feeling. La Tia (year 7) is another ‘top reader’ She is currently reading Ginger Snaps by Cathy Cassidy. La Tia doesn’t think there is a type of book she normally goes for – but she does like writers who describe things clearly.
I asked what they looked for in a book and what interested them. Lukasz was interested in structure, Abigail looks for personal experience – writers who explain how the characters feel and Temi likes the Diary of a Wimpy Kid because he can relate to the daily lives of characters who have homework and have to go to school.
Marina, who is in Year 12, is the top reader in the school and uses Wood Green Library as well as the school library. I asked the other pupils if they also used the Council’s libraries in addition to the school’s. Chris says that he chose to come to St Thomas More specifically because he had heard about the library. Massimo thought the school library was better as it was easier to find books you wanted to read than in other libraries and Abigail liked how Miss Elliott knew individual students’ personalities and which books would suit them.
I asked what they would say to someone who didn’t like books or who thought reading was a waste of time. The answers were very similar and clearly reflected their own experience – “find a book that suits you”, “find one that links with your experiences.”It is in this area that the successful school librarian can excel, as Abigail realised. Consequently, Miss Elliott doesn’t have any reluctant readers. She says, “they just want to find something that they enjoy and once you tap into what they enjoy, you just keep feeding it to them and they become independent.”
It is clear that the pupils of St Thomas More love their library – and their librarian. Abigail adds that “when you come in to the library, Miss Elliot welcomes you.” She describes her as a warm presence. Miss Elliott is clearly touched.
As the children line up to leave for class, Sabrina explains the school’s literacy policy. Every pupil, from Year 7 up to 6th Form, is expected to have a book or a periodical like Scientific American – not the Metro or a tabloid – in their bag for ‘reading time’ on Fridays. “We do whatever we can to reiterate that it’s important to keep reading because the more you read the better – what?” She turns the question to the students still gathered in the library. “…Your grades and levels Miss,” they chorus. Then Chris proudly tells us how he jumped from reading level 4c to 6b since starting at the school.
“It’s very simple”, she says, “the more you read, the better you become – not just that your ‘reading levels’ go up but sentence structure, vocabulary, everything, improves.I tell them this every day,” she laughs.
The children are encouraged to know and understand their reading levels and the target is to gain two sub-levels every term. Executive Headteacher, Mr Tissot emphasises that students are guided so they can have the confidence to take responsibility for their own reading habits. Reading for pleasure is balanced with reading for academic achievement. “The two have to coincide”, she says and I comment that when the children see how she cares about reading and, indeed, about writing, they learn to value them too. She agrees: “Yeah. And they know I’m writing. Last World Book Day when I read my poem to them they couldn’t believe I wrote it.” She is also writing a dystopian novel and has just finished a series of picture books about a pirate.
Sabrina’s own reading preferences run to science fiction – her favourite book is Dune by Frank Herbert – and she ensures that she keeps science fiction classics on her shelves. “Children need exposure to all types of literature – to have an informed choice of what to read.” She remembers the effect reading The Handmaid’s Tale for A Level had on her when she was 16 and she has also managed to pass on her enthusiasm for Dune to the sister of one of the pupils I spoke to earlier who has agreed to read and review it.
Author visits are also popular at the school and they’re a great way of enthusing pupils. There are regular visits from local authors including Johnny Zucker (Striker Boy and Monster Swap) – “the children adore him – he’s great with a class.” It’s not surprising as he was a teacher himself for eight years. Another author, Sally Nicholls, (Ways to Live Forever, Season of Secrets and All Fall Down) is due to visit the following day and I am to accompany her. The school will buy each of the children attending the visit a copy of one of Sally’s books.
If the Government are now championing reading for pleasure as a means of promoting literacy, hopefully this means that there aren’t any cuts in funding to school libraries planned. But it would be blinkered to concentrate solely on literacy and improving English, worthy aims though these are.
There is no doubt that reading for pleasure can immeasurably enrich children’s lives and if reading can open up worlds of opportunity, as well as worlds of the imagination for children then so much the better. Children with limited access to books need school libraries but all children need someone to care enough to find a book that they will love, put it into their hands, and make a reader of them.