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This autumn has seen all three leading political parties sign-up to a new ‘Vision for Literacy’, acknowledging that a growing literacy gap within the UK population is becoming an ever more pressing issue.
The ‘Vision’, put forward by the National Literacy Forum, sets ambitious targets for the next decade and beyond, wanting to ensure that all children leave secondary school possessing ‘the literacy skills they need to succeed’.
When it comes to inspiring a curiosity for reading at an early age, who better to ask for guidance than those whose love of literature eventually flourished into a profession? daynurseries.co.uk has, therefore, asked two current fiction writers what they believe inspired their own development and whether it can illuminate some of the challenges that parents, teachers and nursery staff face in achieving these key learning objectives.
A writer of fantasy novels and poetry, including The Free Land Chronicles and latest title Valorian, Yvonne Carsley describes how a number of factors contributed to her own imaginative and intellectual progression.
She comments: “I think my love of reading first came from my father who read to us kids when we were younger (though strangely I can’t actually recall him doing so; my sister assures me he did – it probably stuck in my mind if only subconsciously).”
However, she believes the key to her own literacy development was that of ‘accessibility’, saying, “I was always aware of books being around the house. When very young I had fairytale picture books and I used to really love the artwork along with the stories. As I got older I was given my sister’s collection of Famous 5 books and from there I went to The 3 Investigators, Hardy Boys, Judy Blume, (Roald Dahl, etc. I particularly loved Matilda. What child wouldn't want those amazing powers (and she too was a fan of reading)?”
On her school experience she says, “Reading was encouraged in junior school, teachers would always get kids to read aloud in front of them (that side of things I was not so crazy about).
“And as a child libraries were very much in business. Everyone in my family had library cards. Books were everywhere: in the home, in the library, in the school. I couldn't help but be into them, especially as I was always a cerebral sort of child and never a physical one. Other children were into playing out, cycling, mucking about in the park, etc. I much preferred to be indoors, where it was warm, tucked up under a cosy duvet with a good book in my hand.”
Parents and teachers
“Any advice I would give to parents is to simply make books as widely accessible to their children as possible. Have them round the house, read to their kids when they are young (preferably before they start school), don’t force children to read but give them plenty of encouragement to at least give it a try. If there are libraries still operating in their areas get their children signed up. If not plenty of cheap books can be bought in charity shops and at car-boots. When I was young my aunt bought me a book for my birthday in which I was featured as a character. That was pretty awesome. What child wouldn't be into reading when they were featured in the book?
“For teachers the advice would be much the same. Make books widely accessible, encourage children to read, but above all make it fun, and be aware that you can’t treat every child the same. Some children might not want to read books but might be persuaded to read comics or even magazines (any kind of reading should be encouraged). Some children don't mind reading aloud in front of the class; some find that difficult so if the teacher needs to judge their reading level have the child read to them in private. Reading should be pleasurable not a form of torture. And give the kids some choice.”
According to Ms Carsley, an over obsession with teaching classical texts, that academics might favour us all reading, can have a negative effect on a child’s love of reading and should be tempered with material of clear interest to the individual.
“My love of reading was almost ruined by the fact that in school I was constantly made to read books I had no interest in. Something that got worse in high school with teachers insisting we all read Shakespeare and Ted Hughes. I was into Stephen King and Anne Rice at the time. I enjoyed reading when the choice of reading matter was mine.
“Following by example is good advice for both parents and teachers. If children see them enjoying books there’s a good chance they will too.”
Author of the Kate Daniels detective fiction series, including Killing for Keeps (published this week), writer Mari Hannah’s experience shows the ability of imaginative curiosity to be a powerful draw in spite of circumstance.
Describing a variable and unpredictable living situation, in terms of both location and resources, her ultimate career as a writer would suggest that a non-ideal start, as far as reading skills are concerned, shouldn’t lead educators into presuming that a child’s potential might be restricted.
Of her upbringing she says: “When I was asked to contribute to this article, I almost turned it down for pressure of work, but then I realised that my journey to publication is somewhat unusual. I have no degree. No MA in creative writing. No background in journalism as many writers do. In fact the opposite is true. I’m from an army family. We were transient. My education suffered as a result and I had minimal access to books as a child.”
She continues, “Packing up and moving on every couple of years or so meant that books were low down the priority list for my parents who had to box up our lives to pastures new. They were seen as luxuries, rather than staples, in our house. Dragged from location to location, I spent a lot of time on my own, lonely and yet trying to make new friends. I was fortunate to have had good teachers, but encouragement without consistency can only go so far.”
Overcoming the odds
Yet despite these barriers to literacy, Ms Hannah’s interests and skills were ultimately able to flourish.
She says: “If I was lucky enough to get hold of a book, I used to devour it, lose myself in its pages. Later, I used my imagination to make up stories of my own. Books, whether borrowed or self-written, became my friends. My passion for writing grew from that feeling of isolation. Several decades on, I’m still striving to improve my vocabulary that should have been there when I left school.
“My partner’s experience is very different. From an early age she remembers visiting her local library with her grandmother, a library that coincidentally I fought to save when I became an author [Save Our Libraries Campaign]. It’s why I visit libraries often to share my work and engage with readers.”
Now publishing her fifth novel, Ms Hannah continues to notice examples where a love for reading has been ignited as soon as an individual feels engaged with some element of the material.
She says: “One of the greatest compliments I was ever paid was from a man who’d never read a book until he was given one of mine. He’s now an avid reader. It doesn’t take much.”
Offering advice to parents who might not be able to afford filling their houses with the latest bestsellers, she says: “It’s easy to forget that not all people can afford to buy books. But every parent can get a free library card with access to thousands of titles – fiction and non-fiction – that will fire the imagination and immerse them and their children in other worlds. I’d urge all parents to supplement their offspring’s education by reading to them outside of school. There is no substitute for one-to-one. It really is a ticket to literacy and learning. Children deserve the very best start in life.”