I was disinclined to believe it when my book club readers told me that children no longer read. In my friends’ homes, the Bedtime Story is the main event of the child’s evening. It may start out as part of the evening routine, the carrot to tempt the child up the stairs to bed, but it is also time cherished by parents and eagerly anticipated by children who seek comfort in the familiarity of old favourites or look forward to the next chapter in the gradual unfolding of events. When asked to read to my Godchildren, I feel I have a lot to live up to.
I am sad to learn that this nightly event no longer takes place all over the country. Last night, Gareth Malone served the facts up straight: boys, in particular, do not like reading (not all boys, I hasten to add – Daniel Powley was keen to show me the books that he was reading when I visited him at home in June). Over one-third had never read a book out of choice. When asked why, the answers ranged from, ‘I don’t like reading because it’s boring,’ to ”When I have a book in front of me I generally just look at the pictures,’ but the most persistent theme was, ‘Girls like reading. We don’t.’
The result is that, by the time they leave primary school, boys tend to be over one year behind girls in terms of reading age, and some – those who have yet to master the basics – are seriously disadvantaged going forwards in the educational system. ‘I feel daft,’ said one when asked how looking at the page and not recognising words made him feel. And yet his vocabulary in conversation was at least on par, if not better, than the other boys’ in his classroom.
It takes an outsider to realise why teaching reading in the classroom is not the way to instill a love of reading in boys. (This is Gareth Malone’s forte). Sometimes the problem lies elsewhere.
The question is why has the gap widened in reading skills between boys and girls? Apart from the obvious attractions available in the form of films, X-box and video games, the main issue appeared to be a lack of example being set by the adults in their lives, both at home and at school.
At Peartree Mead Primary school it was telling that there were only two male teachers. This, I am told is typical. Teaching at primary school level fails to attract male teachers.
Competition, which Gareth felt was essential for boys’ learning, had been removed from the curriculum. Even the school sports day was a ‘team event’ with no winners or losers. (What is the point of a school sports day without competition, you might be forgiven for asking?)
Two of the three boys chosen as Reading Ambassadors had never been into a book shop before. When the boys entered the school library, they were instantly attracted to play equipment designed for year one pupils rather than the books.
When asked who reads at home, Lewis said, ‘Do you know what? My mum reads, my grandmother reads, but my Dad don’t read.’
Invited to the school to discuss Gareth’s reading programme for a class of 39 children, only two of the Dads turned up (one was a school and the other was the husband of a Teaching Assistant). To be fair, only four mothers turned up. While the reading meeting was taking place, Max’s father was found playing football with his son on the school playing field. When asked to read with his son for 20 minutes a day, Max’s father said that it had never crossed his mind to read with his son before.
In marked contrast, when invited to the school to watch a World Cup match with their sons – during the working day – the school hall was packed with fathers and grandfathers. The message: if not that reading is less important than football that, in terms of a bonding exercise, watching a football match with the boy takes priority over reading a book.
Unable to function at school due to lack of sleep, Jack spent over five and a half hours playing X-box every day – from the moment he got home from school to the moment he went to bed. His mother’s attitude was that she couldn’t force him to read. His sisters like reading: he doesn’t. (Even one of his classmates suggested, ‘Your Mum should ban you from the X-box and make you read that book.’) The interesting thing was that playing X-box didn’t make Jack happy. Without prompting, he used the word, ‘addiction’ to describe his relationship with it. He recognised that the reason he couldn’t sleep was because he couldn’t get ‘the pictures’ out of his head.
Gareth found that a regime of enforced reading didn’t work, even when he tried to create a stimulating environment by providing an outdoor classroom in a clearing in some trees. Neither did trying to interest boys in subject matter first. Staging a Roman battle and then asking a classroom of boys to read about the Romans still resulted in the same bored faces, couldn’t care less attitudes and staring into space.
Re-introducing competition and breaking down gender stereotypes by attempting to get fathers and step-fathers to engage in reading activities were the two main challenges that Gareth had to face. He did it with a Reading World Cup, organising boys in teams of equal reading abilities (in the knowledge that there would be winners and losers, even reluctant readers didn’t want to let the side down), and an event that saw fathers reading ghost stories to their sons around the camp-fire (having failed to attract the fathers to a previous reading event, he chose not to tell them what was involved – the result: they all turned up.) Even the boy who had said, ‘I don’t think I’d ever get to like reading because it’s just basically boring’ was hooked. Jack, the boy addicted to X-box now reads for 45 minutes before going to bed, with the added bonus that he is now able to get to sleep.
I have never been in favour of single sex schools, particularly for the primary school age-group, but after watching the enthusiasm that Gareth managed to conjure up using his Boys Own regime, I could be swayed.
Sir Terry Pratchett, who never had much time for school, says that you read and read until you overflow and then your become a writer. Somewhere, in that classroom of boys, is a writer of tomorrow. That is the gift that we give if we give if we instill a love of reading in children. And that is the possibility that we deny them if we don’t.