“The importance of instilling a need to read”
Teens who choose to pick up a book for pleasure are more likely to succeed in life, research shows. But getting them to do so isn’t easy, says Jonathan Douglas.
Reading for pleasure at the age of 15 is a strong factor in determining future social mobility. Indeed, it has been revealed as the most important indicator of the future success of the child. That was the startling finding of research carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on education and reading, and their role in promoting social mobility. It highlights why getting teenagers to read for pleasure is more than a sepia-tinted ambition for frustrated parents. It is a fundamental social issue.
The research findings need unpicking. A distinction is being drawn between different motivations for reading – whether it is done for its own sake, or whether it is the result of being cajoled by carrots and sticks. Research suggests those who read for pleasure demonstrate an intrinsic desire to engage with stories, texts and learning. Reading for pleasure therefore reveals a predisposition not just to literature, but to the sort of lifelong learning that explains increased social mobility.
There is a simple conclusion to draw from all this. We must encourage our children to read for pleasure. But that is easy to say and hard to achieve, particularly in the culture in which many young people grow up today.
They can, of course, read on a screen, but we read in different ways when reading different formats. The language of emails, for example, is not the same as the language we would use in a letter. Analysis so far of the impact of digital literature is that it can play an important role in building core literacy skills, but there is an ongoing debate about whether it conveys the same benefits as reading a physical book. Initial research in the United States would appear to suggest that it doesn’t.
The reading for pleasure habit, I firmly believe, can only be built by giving youngsters the sort of books that interest them. So school libraries, for instance, should not only stock books that support the curriculum, but also books that match pupils’ own interests, sparking their enthusiasm for reading and books. If that means car manuals or books about football for boys, then so be it.
As well as chiming with their interests, books that hook young people into reading need to resonate with who they are. The teenage novels of the past four decades are an extraordinary development in literature, and explore the teenage identity.
This has not always been the case. When I was a teenager, once I had outgrown Rosemary Sutcliff, C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien, the standard literary journey moved on to Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie – a strange hinterland of innocent experiences of adulthood. Meanwhile, in the classroom, the emphasis was on building our knowledge of the canon of classics of English literature. That often felt far removed from anything I was actually going through as a teenager.
It was only in the Seventies that writers such as Aidan Chambers, with his “Dance” sequence of novels, and Robert Cormier, with The Chocolate War and others, came along with literature specifically for teenagers, which chimed with what they wanted to read in the same way that pop music resonated with what they wanted to hear.
And that transformation continues apace today in the hands of the likes of Melvin Burgess and Malorie Blackman. They write extraordinary, psychologically acute books for teenagers that give them access to truths that adults are sometimes too scared to tell them. Burgess’s Junk is about a group of teenage tearaways in Bristol who fall into anarchism and heroin addiction. It deals with issues that teenagers may be experiencing in life for the first time, but deals with them in the safe environment of the pages of a book. Or his Nicholas Dane, loosely based on Oliver Twist but set in care homes in Manchester. Just as Dickens dealt with the reality of his times, this book exposes its readers to present-day reality, and therefore has a greater resonance for them.
I’m not saying that teenage readers shouldn’t tackle Dickens. It is not an either/or. But if we only give them Dickens, or other books that adults think are “good” or “appropriate” for them, then we are potentially missing an opportunity to instill in them that vital habit of reading for pleasure.
There is a balance to be struck, and this goes to the heart of the current debate about whether a canon of classics needs to be imposed on teenage students in our schools. Some say that this proposal is wrong, that the way to get them reading for pleasure is to give them complete freedom to choose. Others say that without a knowledge of the classics, they are being failed by the education system because they will miss out not only on great literature, but also on a vital part of their own cultural identity and heritage.
Perhaps the way forward is to remove the barriers between teenage fiction and the classics, to acknowledge that both have their role in encouraging reading for pleasure, and that those roles may overlap. The national curriculum today gives great leeway in choosing the books that are to be studied, but what that tends to mean is that the selection now falls not to examiners or ministers, nor to pupils, but to their teachers.
To make the most of these freedoms, teachers need to know about teenage writing. They must seize on the work of a new generation of writers for teenagers as a priceless teaching resource. Sadly, the Times Education Supplement’s recent survey of teachers’ top 100 books suggests that their knowledge of new writing is patchy.
This is where school librarians need to come to the curriculum’s rescue. As schools’ resident book experts, school librarians have never been so important as they will be in the next 18 months, as teachers look for support in finding the books that will teach the new curriculum.
The resources we have to inspire young people’s reading are greater and more profound than ever before. If we make the most of them, the results will be extraordinary for individuals and for society. And for the disadvantaged young people the NLT works with, reading is no less than a lifeline.