Literacy is a useful skill, of course, but it is more attractive to focus on the simple fact that reading a book is fun. It is an end in itself, worth doing regardless of the many benefits it undoubtedly brings. Reading together as a family only multiplies the pleasure.
And if we do need to focus on the benefits, to justify the time spent in busy world, we can also point to some profound and enduring impacts. A good story is genuinely mind-altering: a route into times, places and people beyond our reach, the best way invented to date to see the world through someone else’s eyes and to understand why they might do what they do. That expanded empathy, as Stephen Pinker might say, is greatly needed in these divided and fractious times. The fact that is can be acquired for free in a library is under appreciated.
The ability to take pleasure in reading does depend on vocabulary, fluency, good habits and a conducive environment. School can excel at providing the former, parents can really foster the habits. We really need to value those teachers in the early years and primary who build the foundations of vocabulary and fluency – remembering that this begins with the spoken word – and that simply reading whole stories is as important as practicing technical skills and analysing fragments of text.
Not every family can provide all the support children need in reading but, in the home, carving out even small chunks of time to read together on a regular basis can build lifetime habits and greatly supplement the work of the school.
I can still remember the plain yellow covers of the Victor Gollanz science fiction hardbacks in my local library, brought home weekly in exchange for a blue plastic ticket. They were my gateway to the field, easily spotted on the shelves. It felt like I completed the circle when I had the chance to read one of those library books with my son – a Robert Heinlein ‘juvenile’ called Farmer in the Sky, bought online from Amazon (an appropriate nod to the science fiction vision). This book was written in ‘pulp’ heyday of the 1950s; great literature it wasn’t. It was above my son’s reading age at the time, but not beyond his interest. It contained more adult themes than he was used to: one of the characters died. I think that was his first fictional tragedy and I could see it changed his whole conception of what stories could do. A book written 68 years ago, first read by me more than 35 years ago, read with my son a decade ago and remembered by us both to this day.
It's also good to be challenged by your children’s taste in books, and not to fall into stereotypes on what you recommend them. My daughter reads crime and mystery books at a rapid rate, but I could never get into that genre. She found her own way there. When she picked up Animal Farm, though, we had something to discuss, including some good catch phrases. My daughter loves writing too, and I hope George Orwell’s down to earth style and discipline will be a positive influence. After writing a lot, the best way I know to improve as a writer is to also read a lot.
Although reading can seem a private and individual activity, and I love it for the break it provides from the bustle of everyday life, it is also something that can be shared and which build bonds among family and friends.
Russell Hobby joined Teach First as CEO in September 2017 building on more than 15 years developing and promoting leadership in schools. Prior to joining Teach First Russell was General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which represents over 29,000 school leaders in the UK and before that worked as a management consultant, founding Hay Group’s education practice.