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Martilla Morrison discusses how we can share the love of reading with our children

Picture the scene: beautiful beach on the Ile de Ré; miles of golden sand; pine trees gently blowing in the warm breeze; calm blue sea; relaxed parents and children ensconced in a myriad of peaceful activities . . . and then cut to close-up: a small, red haired girl is stomping round in circles, stomping round the little family group – who are all reading – stomp . . . stomp . . . stomp, pent up anger clearly visible – until she finally explodes: “Why do I belong to such a boring, boring family? Just look at you – all you do is read . . . and read” and with that she flops, defeated.

“Mrs M, I’ve given up telling him to read more so from now on I’m going to lock him in the dining room every Sunday, after lunch.”

“My daughter is a voracious reader but my son won’t even lift a book. What can I do?”

“I gave my daughter Lord of the Rings for her birthday but she will only read The Princess Diaries.”

Oh dear, what a mess we’re in when it comes to our children and reading. It’s become such a serious business. It’s become such a labour.

Children have to read every night; must get to level five; can’t move up a level until next year; haven’t reached the required target; must go back to phonics – and so on and so on. Learning to read is crucial but, as reported in the last issue of Eds Up: “Picking up reading skills is part of child development but the key is for the children to have fun.”

So where has the fun gone?

Reading with your child is vital. Yes, it is the single most important thing you can do to help with your child’s education. But let’s just forget about education for the moment and return to encouraging a love of reading for its own sake.

The youngest of children love the sound of a familiar voice reading to them; it’s soothing, rhythmic and bonding. Read with expression and experiment with voices. Just five minutes a day can make a difference and even the busiest parents can manage that. Listening to a fluent reader will help your child learn how a reader’s voice can help written words make sense. Talking to them about the characters, looking at the illustrations, and laughing together over silly happenings all trigger the notion that reading is enjoyable. Don’t worry if the book becomes dog-eared, falls in the bath, gets covered with jam. It really doesn’t matter. Let reading together become a pleasurable habit. And don’t stop.

Whoever said you don’t read to children once they start school . . . or when they can read for themselves?

We all love stories and storytellers. From earliest times, people have told stories and today we are spoiled for we have stories in so many different genres: books, films, theatre, dance, audio CDs, comics, graphic novels – the list is endless.

Talking to a group of boys about to start the year in which they took scholarship exams to their chosen senior schools, one asked if I would stop reading to them. The answer was most definitely “No”. I considered it more important than ever.

The youngest of children love the sound of a familiar voice reading to them; it’s soothing, rhythmic and bonding

Roald Dahl didn’t really enjoy his schooldays but in his book, Boy, he remembers, with great affection, the kind, “blessed, beautiful Mrs O’Connor with her wacky clothes and her grey hair flying in all directions” who came to his Prep School every Saturday morning and read to the boys for over two hours – whilst the masters retired to the local hostelry: “And the result of all this for me, at any rate, was that by the age of thirteen I had become an avid and insatiable reader of good writing,” he says. So, to get your child hooked on reading, I think you must read to them and with them.

Make reading visible in your home

It’s also important that they see you reading and reading for pleasure. Visit bookshops and libraries together, create a special place for your children’s books – and don’t insist it always has to be tidy.

“If we really want our children to become readers for life, we would do well to remember that horses are much more fun than carts ” Michael Morpurgo

Schools have a lot to answer for these days

There are so many targets to be met in every subject and the curriculum is, without doubt, overloaded. Whilst hearing individual children read has become marginalised, this is not as serious as it seems: there are numerous other ways of achieving the same goals.

The greatest crime, in my opinion, is that very few children are being read to, having their imaginations fired or discovering the world of literature.

I am told over and over that there isn’t time to read novels (too long) and meet all “the objectives”. Your children may well be suffering from a surfeit of extracts – chosen from genres allocated to particular year groups. These passages (probably from excellent books) are dissected beyond belief. If you delve a little deeper, you may find that even your older children may have never read “a whole book” – and don’t want to anyway – because they don’t understand what they’re missing. University professors are finding that undergraduates on English literature courses are no longer able to complete some of the texts on the syllabus. They read “summaries” online. So don’t assume that school will get your children hooked on reading.

What can you do?

When your child can do the doggy paddle along the side of the pool, you wouldn’t dream of considering that child a swimmer so just because your child can decode, don’t think they can read. Learning to read quickly and fluently is like learning to ride a bicycle – if you don’t cycle fast enough you will fall off.

This is the big issue. To enjoy reading, you need to increase speed and fluency. Reading fluency has been defined as: “The ability to read connected text rapidly, smoothly, effortlessly and automatically with little conscious attention to the mechanics of reading such as decoding,” Meyer and Felton, 1999.

Reading slowly may result in:
• reading less than their peers
• having less time to assimilate what they’ve read
• using up energy trying to identify words
• difficulty building up concepts and ideas
• every passage being a struggle

Being able to read the words does not necessarily mean that your child understands what they have read. Some children sound like fluent readers and this can make you believe they are good readers. Talk about a book and ask questions that make them think:

 • How do you think this character feels?
• What would you do?
• Do you like these words? How do they make you feel?
• If you could ask the character three questions what would you ask?
• Where might we find information about . . . ?

If your child can’t read quickly enough, they will lose the meaning and the enjoyment. The mechanics of reading are very important but once mastered, help your child to become an independent reader as soon as possible and by any means. Don’t allow anyone or anything to hold them back.

Build up reading stamina

Like running a marathon, preparation is crucial. Encourage daily practice and help your children to develop higher reading skills like: skimming, scanning, predicting etc. The quality of the reading is more important than the how.

What to read

• Choose books that are unputdownable
• Read the opening chapter to start them off
• Stop at a cliff hanger point
• Introduce your children to different types of books: classic fiction, short stories, joke books, poetry and non-fiction
• Find books associated with your child’s interests
• Cook together
• Read the sports pages or the fashion pages
• Holidays – research and plan together
• Visit museums and follow up with books on the Romans or dinosaurs
• Read the book and watch the film (e.g. The Railway Children)
• Visit the theatre together (e.g. Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse)
• Read and recite poems together
• Play audio books in the car
• Don’t dismiss comics
• Talk about books
• Books don’t need batteries so they can travel with ease: trains, boats and planes; granny’s garden; doctor’s waiting room and all those times spent waiting.

Choosing Books

 As soon as possible allow children to take control. Very soon, they will know their favourite genres and will introduce you to authors you’ve never heard of – there are more children’s authors than ever before and there is a remarkable range of material available.

No one size fits all and some children read above their level and some below. This doesn’t matter now and again. Voracious readers often return to old favourites. Remember too that you can read to your children above their level.

Be aware of the length of a book, the number of chapters, paragraphing, layout, illustrations and vocabulary. Surprisingly, weaker readers can find some modern books with their colourful illustrations, variety of fonts and graphics, very confusing.

The ‘Five Finger’ rule

This is almost foolproof. Open any book at any page and ask your child to start reading and raise a finger each time an unknown word appears. If more than five fingers are raised by the bottom of the page, the book is too difficult.

Staying up

Don’t insist on books being finished and now and again allow an extra five minutes of “staying up” to finish. It’s not a very good idea to use television and computers as either a reward or a punishment and if you find someone reading under the duvet by torchlight – tiptoe away and have a celebratory drink.

P.S. That little girl turned into a voracious reader!

Martilla Morrison is Head of English at The English School, Kuwait


This is the most fantastic website. It recommends books from Baby and Toddler through to 14+; it has books that are dyslexia friendly; books for boys (please don’t believe the myth that boys don’t read); books for reading ages and interest ages; books chosen for reluctant readers and best of all, you can download the opening pages. There are books of the month, featured authors and regular emails to keep you up to date.