Set the children free – show them the joy of reading for reading’s sake

‘Publisher Egmont has called on the government to make more space in the curriculum for reading in schools.’

To slip the confines of reality for 15 or 20 minutes is a superpower too few of our schools are nurturing

For many young people today, books are only for school and exams – the notion of reading for simple pleasure is greatly diminishing.

This week, a survey of 27,000 children and young people carried out by the National Literacy Trust, ahead of Thursday’s World Book Day, found only 52% of eight to 18-year-olds read for pleasure. And just a quarter of those will read daily, dropping 17% from 2015 figures. It is a fact made worse by findings of Nielsen Book Research’s annual survey on British children’s reading habits, which found that as few as 32% of children under 13 are read to daily by an adult, for no other reason than the pure fun of it – this is down from 41% in 2012, with most parents stopping reading to their child by the age of eight.

Initiated by Michael Gove, tougher standards in the new-style GCSEs have, arguably, had an impact. Pupils routinely talk of how they are too tired to read, so swamped are they with homework.

Egmont, the publisher that co-funded the Nielsen survey, has called on the government to make more space in the curriculum for reading in schools – arguing that a decline in adults reading to children has a significant impact on their wellbeing.

In lieu of any government action, what can schools stretched for both time and resources do about a widening breach between children who have a daily diet of reading and those who don’t? It is perhaps first to recognise that where reading is concerned, we can help to create a virtuous circle. Children and teenagers who are read to are more likely to read independently, and those who regularly read for pleasure are in turn more likely to do better in exams. As such, story time shouldn’t be relegated just to primary schools or class readers in English lessons.

The paradox of reading aloud is that it both slows the pace of the school day, giving much needed respite to a timetable that can, at times, feel relentless. At the same time, it can intensify learning – a fact I have been reminded of while reading Benjamin Zephaniah’s Face to a group of 12- to 13-year-olds. The novel charts the story of 15-year-old Martin whose life is forever changed when his face is badly scarred in a car accident. Each fortnight the group has gathered with me, first reading a chapter and then pupils carrying on reading aloud in turns.

We have followed Martin from popular would-be-jock to a much more introspective teenager racked with insecurity. We have debated what sexist expectations are placed on men to bottle up emotions, as well as how damaging these can be – and whether or not the pupils themselves feel constrained by these gender norms. As one boy put it: “It is why more men kill themselves.” Another pupil during the same discussion asked: “Why do boys get into gangs?”

Living through the book enabled them to reflect on what they consider to be one of the most pressing social questions of today, as it affects them. It was a question debated with much more understanding, sensitivity and emotional intelligence than they or adults give them credit for. This is the magic of reading for its own sake.

When done well, reading aloud in the manner of story time can provide one of the best real-life examples of how to debate opinions in public – something so obviously missing in our political discourse. It seems 13-year-olds have a better grasp of the fact that a subjective response holds equal merit to any other. With reading for its own sake, pupils are unburdened from parroting (or forgetting) what is considered the “correct answer”. Instead they are able to see strengths and weaknesses to holding particular positions.

Story time should be no less essential than break time. Why shouldn’t our young be transported elsewhere for 15 to 20 minutes of each day? To blur the lines between a confined reality and a limitless imagination, briefly but daily. And what better way, in our selfie-obsessed age, can we teach them to look beyond themselves, than allowing them to become someone else entirely?

James Baldwin said that by the age of 13 he “had read [himself] out of Harlem”. Today’s young deserve the same imaginative freedom.