When I first started teaching, my job as a reception class teacher was to get every child reading. Hearing children read was what I did most of the day. I only considered myself successful if my children became ‘free readers.’ In spite of my passion and commitment, for the first 17 years of teaching, I failed three children every year — in different schools, different catchment areas and using a wide range of different approaches. Ian, Ann and Matthew were the first of my litany of failures.
If every infant teacher was like me, committed to turning children into ‘free readers,’ we failed over 60,000 children every year in England alone. But not every teacher was like me. When I moved to Tower Hamlets in 1994, I discovered that there were many more than three children in each class who couldn’t read. My secretary, who had recently worked in a local secondary school, said that she helped many 15 year-olds read the application forms for their GCSE options every year.
Fortunately for the children in my brand new Tower Hamlets school, I worked out what it really took to get them all to read and write. I made a promise to their parents that we wouldn’t fail a single child. I hope that someone else has helped Ian, Ann and Matthew learn to read because reading matters. As Michael Morpurgo says, “Reading is the one ability, that once set in motion, has the ability to feed itself, grow exponentially and provide a basis from which possibilities are limitless.”
Put simply, children who choose to read a lot at home do well at school. They read in two days what Ian, Ann and Matthew probably read in a year. It’s the ‘once set in motion’ part of the quote that’s the most critical. Only the children who can read, do read. Only the children who do read have access to new words, new worlds and new ideas. Only these children acquire an extensive vocabulary, appreciate diverse English spelling, and enjoy thinking about the best word to use for the greatest impact in their writing. And, only these children gain new knowledge every day for themselves. Good readers learn more: the more they know, the easier it is for them to learn.
Given the pull on children’s time from TV, ipads and computers we need to be better at storytelling than we’ve ever been before. We need to choose the best authors to help us. What we read to them today, they might choose to read for themselves tomorrow. Don’t beg children to take books home. Don’t test them on their home reading. If we’re clever, we’ll show them how much we love the stories we read aloud so they’ll beg us to let them borrow the books.
Everyone knows that reading closes the gap between children from different backgrounds. It’s the one thing that matters the most. And as Jeanette Winterson says, “Teach a child to read and keep that child reading and you will change everything. And I mean everything.”
If all headteachers make the teaching of reading their avowed core purpose, we will change everything, for every child.