Dr Kornel Kossuth, head of English at St Ronan’s School, says schools should find the time in every day for 15 or 30 minutes of reading time for pupils.
As an English teacher, there are two times each term when I wish I were teaching maths or chemistry: at parents’ evenings and when exam results are handed back. English marks are invariably lower than all others (who ever heard of 97% in English, whereas in maths? – easy!) and there is no quick-fix advice to give to parents who are wringing their hands and looking to you to tell them something that would eclipse anything spoken on Mount Sinai.
With burning throat, I usually ask with feigned innocence, “Does Johnny read?” Of course, I know he doesn’t – I’ve seen him mess around in far too many lessons to know different – but do the parents know? Knowing this is the moment where denial is useless, they will sheepishly admit that, no, Johnny doesn’t read. “Well, if he wants to improve in English, he should read more.”
It sounds like such a cop-out, pass-the-buck.
But it’s true. Reading is at the centre of education, of culture, of identity and adventure – and of English. It’s almost as hard to find a top-level pupil in English, who doesn’t read, as it is to find an underachiever, who does read. So, schools being all about education, you’d think reading would be at the centre of the curriculum and school life. Wrong.
This may be a very skewed view of the scholastic world, but as far as I know prep and primary schools are not doing nearly enough to set aside time for reading. Agreed, a school is all about providing an all-round education for children and introducing them to a wide range of activities and skills, so they find it easier to develop their strengths, but does that mean we give up on the fundamentals? Does that mean mountain biking is more important than reading?
No-one will say that, but I’ve yet to see people put their money where their mouth is.
In this digitalised age, many schools are going in the direction of doing away with such antiquated and superfluous institutions as books, opting for the digital library instead, where you never own, but only loan, a text. This is short-sighted madness. I would contend that the feel of paper is vital to the experience of a book, and apparently it has been proven that people forget content on screens faster than information on paper. Paper, despite Fahrenheit 451, is, after all, more durable than electricity.
But what digital media, Amazon included, can never match is the joy of browsing, the discovery of a book by pure chance. Yes, Amazon has algorithms that are meant to help them make more money, erm, help us find a suitable book, but with interests as diverse as poetry, history, art, literature, comics (yes, you can put those two words next to each other), music, animals, classic tales of terror, photography and myths (I’m making these up as I go along), in fact almost everything except for sport, Amazon finds it impossible to recommend to me anything worthwhile. The algorithm lies down and dies, or goes off to Mexico on holiday.
Conversely, so many times I have walked through a bookstore (yes, I am that out-of-date) and spotted a book that interested me or been reminded of a book I always wanted to read. What I’m trying to say is, books are important and now, more than at any other time since Gutenberg, we need to teach our children the value of books and of reading, give them a chance to engage with bound paper and colourful covers, with words, with stories, with imagination.
That means walking the walk, putting our money where our mouth is.
And while having a well-stocked, inviting library with a librarian who can enthuse pupils and steer them in the direction of a good book is a sine qua non, it can only ever be a beginning. Much more important is finding time in the busy school day for quiet reading, for rest, for engagement with the written word. This could be 15 minutes in the morning, but ideally would be 30 minutes at some other time of the day.
But the important thing is not to see this time as a filler, in which pupils can go off to music lessons or other extras and is then only for those unlucky enough not to have lots of other activities on. It must be an activity for the whole school – teachers included (and I personally would love to have half an hour every day in the school just to read) – with no other interruptions: an integral part of the school day and of the curriculum.
A western form of mindfulness, in which the brain finds time and space to focus on nothing but the word. Yes, some pupils may find it hard, may be bored stiff by half an hour of reading, but I would argue being bored by a book is also a valuable experience. After all, we will spend a lot of our adult life being bored, and maybe we will then remember we can be bored with a book in our hand and maybe even open it…
I know that finding 30 minutes of protected time each day sounds like a tall order. But either we take this issue seriously and do what we can to make sure the next generation can articulate their desires and frustrations in select and precise vocabulary and have a basic understanding of what makes this our language such a great vehicle for descriptions, thoughts and emotions, or we can just, like… you know… like… you know… yeah… like… yeah… you know – and I can go back to dreaming of being a maths teacher.
This article is from the summer 2016 edition of Prep School magazine. The issue can be read here
What do you think? Is there time in the primary school day for 30 minutes of reading? Let us know via Twitter or in the comments…
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