Inspiring children to read like Jo March

Kate Sherville-Payne, junior pastoral co-ordinator and English co-ordinator at Alderley Edge School for Girls, reflects on the seemingly impossible task of inspiring those reluctant to read

For a voracious reader like myself, it is a mystery as to why all children, most of whom have few responsibilities, do not act in the same way as Jo March. Given the opportunity, why would you not spend every free moment with your nose in a book?

Louisa May Alcott depicted each of her four Little Women as having very different characters and it has to be said that every classroom contains a modern-day Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Why, though, is it increasingly difficult to find the Jo in your class and how do we create more of them?

The advantages for children of being a daily reader are well-proven but we want children to make this choice for themselves. If reading is a pleasure, any academic reading or research in later life, whether for senior school or business, is never a chore, more an exploration.

Library lessons are so effective that we are fundraising for, and investing heavily in, the refurbishment of both our junior and senior school libraries

The youngest children are required to read daily, either in school or at home, until their word decoding skills are well-developed. In fact, we find that young children love this one-to-one time with an adult and are usually very keen to engage with reading books at this stage.

However, when this stage of the reading process comes to an end, the reading habit can be lost. At this point, other strategies are needed to ensure reading for enjoyment is taking place.

Fifteen minutes of recorded reading is considered to be part of daily homework for older girls in the junior school but clearly, we do not want this to be seen as a chore. Recommendations and advice are given about book choices so that the children understand they are still supported in this activity.

We also provide parents with workshops, newsletters and welcome evening advice to encourage their involvement.

Happily, a cheer from the class is guaranteed when told that it is time for a library lesson. The children grab their reading books from desks and line up at the door without being asked. Once in the school library, they make themselves comfortable on bean bags and silence descends.

One child at a time is chosen to read and discuss a book with the teacher, and it is an hour of unparalleled joy for all.

Alderley Edge plans to refurbish its junior and senior school libraries

Similarly, both junior and senior children spend one happy hour a fortnight with the school librarian – in her session, she reads to them. The children know that during this time no more is expected of them other than to enjoy a book.

Library lessons are so effective that we are fundraising for, and investing heavily in, the refurbishment of both our junior and senior school libraries, so that we have a well-stocked, modern space in which to hold these lessons.

In order to ensure that our students are at least partially ‘reading up’, we introduced a system of compulsory reads for years three to six. Each year group is given a list of six books, which must be read, one per half-term.

It is true that these are not books that the children have chosen to read themselves, but the result of this initiative is to create the effect of a book club – in discussions, the teacher will find that some of the class were engrossed and cannot wait to read the next in the series, while other children can explain at length how the book has helped them find a genre from which they will not be reading any further. Either way, the children are reading, forming opinions and thinking about future reading.

“Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid; what it was she had no idea, as yet, but left it for time to tell her; and, meanwhile, found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn’t read, … as much as she liked.”

So, have we found the perfect system for encouraging reluctant readers? Certainly not. Every class contains at least one Amy, who would rather throw her book on the fire. However, I believe that we have created an environment where every child understands the value of reading and aspires ‘to do something very splendid’ too.

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