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The problem is that we have concentrated exclusively on teaching the child how to read, and we have forgotten to teach him to want to read.
(Jim Trelease)
Throughout this series on reading, the stress has been on reading for pleasure, reading as a pleasurable activity.  Readers become readers by reading;  they practise and improve reading skills when they enjoy what they are reading.  We read for information, and we read to learn, we use reading for a great many things, but we practise and improve our reading skills by reading for pleasure.

For many people, children and adult, reading is hard work.  They do not enjoy it, so they do not practise it and they do not improve.  "In the classroom, too many of our children too quickly come to associate books and reading with workbooks, tests, and homework," says Trelease.  "Reading?  That's work, not fun,' they will tell you."   Myers says, "Reading is hard work.  Hard work, moreover, which by most pupils is not seen as directly rewarding in examination terms."

The act of reading will be less like work if children are given plenty of practice in reading;  they will make the most of their practicing if they feel they are getting somewhere, if they enjoy what they read.  So we need to provide them with books that will interest them, books they will enjoy.  There is a problem.  What they enjoy is not always what adults, teacher or parent, would prefer them to read.  Bates notes  "a lack of correlation between what we think they should be reading, and what they are actually reading."   An acid test is what children will buy with their own money, given free choice.   When Sue Bates compared the choice of The Times' children's books experts with Books for Students' record of sales through schools bookshops, she found that only seven titles coincided.

I do not see any cause for concern here.  Rather than worry about what books children buy, I rejoice that, given free choice of how to spend their money, many children choose to spend it on books.  It is cause for celebration.  It's one up to the parents and the teachers and the librarians, one up to all those who are helping children to get hooked on books.

Bates refers to a seminar attended by librarians, teachers and others: almost everyone owned up to having enjoyed Blyton. Biggles, Just William and The Chalet School were other warmly remembered favourites.  Other adults, especially those from other cultures, will remember their own favourites.   The evidence suggests that readers need to go through a formula and series fiction stage.  For many, the series stage will be brief.  For others it stretches over many years.  Some may never get beyond it.  Do we have the right to deny them an avenue of pleasure or escape which will serve them through life?  Many non-readers give up reading because they are made to feel guilty about the standards or the quality of the reading which they can and do enjoy.

The problem is that formula fiction is not critically accepted as good fiction.  It is often shallow.  The characters are often caricatures and stereotypes.  The plots are unreal.  The settings could be anywhere.  This could be, as Ray suggests, one of the reasons why Blyton's adventure and other stories were popular with a world-wide audience, still are popular.  There is so little detail that any reader can easily identify with at least one of the characters, can imagine the story as taking place somewhere they know.

Many readers never really grow out of the series stage.  But there is no evidence to show that, if they are denied series books, children are freed to become lifelong readers.  If anything, research suggests that if they are denied this step in their reading development, children are denied one of those elements which go towards making a lifelong reader.  They are less likely to make it.

Many concerned with reading know of the New Zealand Reading Recovery scheme, a remedial reading scheme which has adopted in many other countries.  I cannot help wondering if the concern about reading standards in New Zealand in the eighties is in any way connected with the banning of Enid Blyton's books in New Zealand in the sixties.  When parents don't read, the children don't read...

But of the four lifelong reading elements discussed in this series, the enjoyment factor is the most emotive.  Passion rides high.

One camp holds that there is so much quality literature available that there is no need for children to read books of a lower standard;  children are too young to judge what is good and what is rubbish, so the adult must choose for them.

Others hold that children are the best judges of what they will enjoy and what they do enjoy;  given the choice of something they cannot enjoy and nothing, many will prefer nothing.  Both camps speak with logic and with force.

What is a good book?   Sheila Egoff provides a neat test when she says 'A fine book sends me rushing to share it, with anyone I can find, child or adult; a mediocre book sets my teeth on edge, and a poor one makes me laugh'.  Here is the role model at work.  But taste is subjective.

We cannot say what any individual, child or adult, will find good.  Tastes differ and needs differ.  Carlsen declares that content is more important than language, and that a reader interested in the content will stretch, but a reader not interested in the content will be bored and will reject the text.  A child interested in fishing, or car mechanics, or space travel or cowboy stories will enjoy a book on the theme, will enjoy it, will absorb and will understand - even if the language is beyond her (or him).  One episode of a televison serial may spark the need to read the book.  One chapter read in class may spark the need to find out what happens next, and next, and in the end, and certainly before the next lesson.

Whatever the child's reading abilities, and whatever her tastes and preferences, it is important that we do not impose artificial limits, our own preconceptions.  Aidan Warlow affirms, "children will overcome all sorts of linguistic obstacles (usually by ignoring them) if the alternative world of the story is one that is desirable and comprehensible."  Author Robert Leeson agrees, adding, "I would say 'skipping' rather than 'ignoring', since children pick up many things subliminally as they cruise over the page.  Only later do they realise that they learned something at this or that moment in reading a given book."

Clearly if we are talking about individual readers, we can have no all-encompassing objective definition of goodness.  Individual readers have individual needs, which depend on so many outside factors, and these often shift from day to day, according to personal and family circumstance, relationships with friends, schoolwork, time of month and state of health and so on.   We need to think in terms of the best book for the child at any particular time, and this calls for a wide range of books and of children.  Bullock emphasises the importance of the teacher, who "needs to know what is relevant and available."  The enthusiastic teacher has "an expert ability to bring the right book to the right child at the right time."

Margaret Meek argues that "a child's reading experience and perception as also being different to that of the adult...  A critic's judgement may not be in keeping with the reader's needs or a story that has no critical acclaim may be extremely important to a particular child."

"The 'best' book," says Spink, "is the best book for the specific, individual person - the best book that will engage, support and extend that particular reader.  That book may be a well-established, well-regarded book.  It may be a book others consider unspecial and undistinguished."

Susan Ohanian writes passionately:  "If you're going to cultivate readers, you'll need a ready supply of joke books, almanacs, fairy tales, poetry, fiction old and new, and nonfiction.  You'll need easy books, hard books, sad books, happy books.  And then, most important of all, you'll need to give children the time and space to explore these books.  They must have the freedom to reject, to say Yuck.  They need the freedom to read Rumpelstiltskin 16 times."

We must also accept the fact that not everyone is going to reach the highest pinnacles of literary taste and judgement.  If you claim to read only good literature, you are very much in the minority:  in Britain it is estimated that 1% of men and 4% of women read good literature exclusively.  The danger of the quality camp is that they perpuate their eliteness by denying many children all pleasure from reading.  They turn children against reading.  They are in part responsible for the aliterate, the people who can read but who do not.

They would deny children access to books that they enjoy.  Children have no place in children's literature.  Peter Hunt's article in Signal is explicit.  "Whatever critical theory we produce for children's literature, it will have little or nothing to do with children.  Thus we must say Book X is literature (as opposed to reading matter) or Book Y is good literature (as opposed to not-so-good) regardless of whether children actually read it, or like it, or buy it."

Leeson believes that the 60s and the 70s were bad times for children's writing.  Authors wrote for themselves and for the critics.  Many of the awards for children's literature were presented to critically-acclaimed books which mouldered unread on the library shelves.  "The so-called 'reluctant' reader," says Leeson, "was in fact the great unrecognised critic of the 1960s and the 1970s.  These young people by their stout resistance, by their upholding of standards of readability, impelled in teachers and librarians, at least, a wish to rethink."  My thoughts about the Blyton ban in New Zealand and the Reading Recovery Scheme are not so far-fetched after all.

There is no suggestion here that we need to teach the junk in our English classes, nor that we make only the junk available.  Like anyone else, teachers and librarians cannot enthuse about what they do not enjoy.  Teachers should continue to teach from texts they think good and that they think their classes will enjoy. They can teach taste and discernment.  But they should not deny the child the right to read in his own time what the child enjoys, nor make the child feel inferior for his choice.  Stibbs states, "A teacher's responsibility is to provide a lot of material, not to determine taste."

"Every survey so far carried out into children's reading reveals that much of it is ephemeral or well below what informed adults would consider to be good material," said Bullock. "Nevertheless, the skilled teacher will not reject or denigrate it.  The willingness to talk about it and take up the child's enthusiasm is essential to the process of encouraging him to widen his range."

Our concern is to get kids hooked on books, because reading enables learning, and because reading is an end in itself.  The good reader, the child who reads 'difficult' or 'good' books, will become more developed more quickly, in terms of vocabulary, grammar, comprehension and other learning skills.  The not-quite-so-good reader will not gain quite as much.  And the non-reader will find learning very difficult altogether.  Taste and discernment will come, for those who want it to.  Whether it comes or not, there is a lifetime's pleasure to be gained from a reading habit.

Does it matter if children read 'rubbish' rather than quality, and only quality?  What does reading research have to say? Stephen Krashen offers a compact guide to the findings of more than 230 research studies;  inter alia, he notes:

Readers read;  they become better readers by reading.  They gain most from reading text which they find interesting and enjoyable.

The last word, a sad word, is culled from the Bullock Report.  "... in making this recommendation we recall a particularly telling remark from the evidence:  pupils admitted to an adult literacy scheme had been asked to say why, in their opinion, they failed to learn to read at school.  'Only one common factor emerges: they did not learn from the process of learning to read that it was something other people did for pleasure.'"

The views expressed here are my own.
They are not neccessarily the views of the school, nor of individual teachers within the school.

Sources include:

Bates, Sue.  What makes a good book?  Child Education, June 1990, 34-35.

Becoming a nation of readers : the report of the commission on reading.  Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education, 1985.

Beeson, Lois.  Ways into reading - quality and diversity in children's literature : the second W.H. Smith/ Arts Council Children's Literature Summer School, 30th August-3rd September 1993, Westminster College, Oxford. Youth Library Review, No. 16, Autumn 1993, 11-14.

Bullock, A.  A language for life : report of the Committee of Inquiry.  London.  HMSO, 1975.

Carlsen, G. Robert.  Books and the teenage reader : a guide for teachers, librarians and parents; rev.ed.  New York.  Harper & Row, 1971.

Chambers, Aidan.  Introducing books to children.  London.  Heinemann Educational, 1973.

Cullinan, Bernice E.  Read to me: raising kids who want to read.  New York.  Scholastic, 1992.

Dickinson, Peter.  "A defence of rubbish", in Haviland, Virginia, ed. Children and literature : views and reviews.  London.  Bodley Head, 1994.  pp101-3.

Eccleshare, Julia.  Treasure islands : the Woman's Hour guide to children's reading.  London.  BBC, 1988.

Eccleshare, Julia.  Trends in children's fiction in the United Kingdom during the 1980s.  Children's Literature in Education, 22 (1), 1991, 19-23.

Egoff, Sheila.  If that don't do no good, that won't do no harm: the uses and dangers of mediocrity in children's reading.  Library Journal, vol 97 (18), 1972.  3435-9.

Gawith, Gwen.  Reading alive!  London: A&C Black, 1990.

Haviland, Virginia, ed.  Children and literature : views and reviews.  London.  Bodley Head, 1994.

Krashen, Stephen.  The power of reading : insights from the research.  Englewood, Colorado.  Libraries Unlimited, 1993.

Landsberg, Michele.  The world of children's books : a guide to choosing the best.  London.  Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Leeson, Robert.  Reading and righting : the past, present and future of fiction for the young.  London. Collins, 1985.

Mellon, Constance A.  Teenagers do read : what rural youth say about leisure reading.  School Library Journal,  February 1987, 27.

Moss, Elaine.  The 'peppermint' lesson, reprinted in: Moss, Elaine, Part of the pattern : a personal journey through the world of children's books, 1960-1985.  London: Bodley Head, 1986.  pp. 33-35.

Myers, Alan.  Reading in the problem years : some strategies. The School Librarian, Vol 31, 4,  December 1983.  328-331.

Ohanian, Susan.  Smuggling reading into the reading program. Learning, November 1981.  44-47.

Purton, Rowland W.  Surrounded by books: libraries in primary and middle schools; rev.ed.  London: Ward Lock Educational,  1970.

Ray, Sheila.  The Blyton phenomenon : the controversy surrounding the world's most successful children's writer.  London:  Andre Deutsch, 1982.

Ray, Sheila. Children's fiction : a handbook for librarians, 2nd. ed.. Leicester.  Brockhampton, 1972.

Spink, John.  Children as readers : a study.  London. Bingley/ Library Association, 1989.

Stibbs, Andrew.  Talking about books;  reprinted in Chambers, Aidan.  Introducing books to children.  London.  Heinemann Educational, 1973.  pp.144-146.

Townsend, John Rowe.  Written for children : an outline of English-language children's literature;  rev.ed.  Harmondsworth.  Kestrel Books, 1974.

Trelease, Jim.  The read-aloud handbook.  Harmondsworth.  Penguin, 1984.

Waterland, Liz.  'Read with me' and after.  Signal, 51, 1986.  147-55.

Whitehead, Frank, Capey, A.C. and Maddren, Wendy.  Children's reading interests : an interim report from the Schools Council Research project into Children's Reading Habits, 10-15...  (Schools Council Working Paper 52).  Evans/ Methuen Educational, 1975.

Written and copyright John Royce 1995.
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John Royce, BA, MLib, ALA
Library Director, Robert College
Arnavutköy, TR-80820 Istanbul, Turkey.

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It was last revised on 5 January 2001.