Compulsory Reading

Reading is something that virtually everyone does, even if it’s the headlines of the newspapers as we pass them by in the supermarket. Some people don’t think of reading as something to be done for pleasure; it’s a function, for school, work, or when you’re shopping. However you read, it’s important that you can read and also comprehend what it is your eyes are feeding you.

My son likes reading well enough, but that’s been carefully cultivated over time; he would usually find a hobby that involves physical activity or TV. I’m the total antithesis of that approach; I’m always reading something. But not everyone is like me, I am pained to admit; forcing people to like reading is akin to trying to force people to like sport. Either you like it or you don’t; even after you are introduced to it, you might shift slightly, but if it’s not in your nature to like something, then so be it.

But reading is important in different ways; whilst not everyone will enjoy reading for pleasure, they will need to understand our shared language in order to navigate our way through the world – to understand bills, to professionally discuss a payraise with your superior, to understand what words to use in guiding your children through difficult times in their lives.

Being encouraged to read helps develop our imagination – but that involves time and commitment from those around the person concerned. It’s easier to commit to that in childhood, because you might be able to capture that imagination which is inherent in all children.

My son is a perfect example. Like I’ve said, he is not a recreational reader. He doesn’t choose to read for the fun of it; he has other hobbies – skipping, arts and crafts, sport. But I wanted to stretch his imagination and show him a greater world “out there” that you can only access through books. To ask him to read by himself at bed every night wasn’t going to be right for him; he did that when he lived with his foster carers, and it didn’t sink in. He didn’t retain any of the stories he had read, and seemed surprised when I reminded him of some of the stories he had … perhaps “skimmed” is a better word. Solo reading just didn’t work for him.

So I immediately introduced a routine from day one of him living at home with me; reading together at night. I wanted to find a small thing that would help us bond, and also inspire him – and reading connected us. It was a challenge to find the right book, and I knew that that was a big responsibility; the first chance to influence and spark a potential love of the written word. I chose Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and it seems that I chose well; we ended up reading all seven books, the script for the play, and the companion short stories – we read everything, because Bryan was asking for it. I made it calm and relaxed, and we read every single night without fail; no matter what had happened during the day, that night-time routine was sacred.

When the Harry Potter was over, I asked for advice from friends with children – what did their children like? The Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl books appeared a lot, and so I put it to my son for the final choice; Percy Jackson was the outcome. Books about Greek demigods in modern-day America were intriguing; I wondered if we would even get through the first book, but we’re now on the first book of the second series – and he named several of his “gang” (the teddies) after Greek gods. Perhaps some of this was sinking in after all.

Did he then feel – after 18 months of us reading together – that he wanted to read by himself? No; it had become so ingrained that we would read together that of course we would continue. He loved reading together; I had even managed to get him – with support from the school – to read aloud for a little bit, and for him to be proud of his speaking voice.

One thing I was always determined to teach my son, however, was to read books he loved, and not to waste time on fiction that turned him off. When I was at school, I read Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, and I hated it with a passion. I found it dull, plodding, and inane; we read it because it was a set text for A-Level English Literature. We read it because we had to. When I became a parent, I vowed to myself (and him) that I would never force him to read any book that I had the ability to influence; knowing that he was not a natural reader made me want him to seek out fiction that appealed to him, not associate reading with books he was told to read and never-ending boredom.

So when my son started coming home with books from school, my heart dropped; he was being given books, rather than allowed to choose, and told that he had to read them at home. But at home, he was reading books that were above the level where he “should” be – the famed levels that the government sets and tells all children where they should be reading, even if that’s not their natural aptitude.

I was a little cross when my son told me this; that he had to read these books, that he’d not been able to choose and were at the level he “should” be at. As it happened, we’re reading two different books at the moment – one in the morning before school and one at bedtime. Our morning book is aimed at a pre-teen audience – 12 or so. He seems comfortable with the storyline so far, is enjoying it, and can talk to me about what’s happening intelligently. He’s technically reading above his reading level – above, in fact, the books he brings home from school – and so I want to encourage that. I refused to make Bryan read these books from the school; I am encouraging him far more than he would get with these books, and he’s more engaged.

We shouldn’t ever teach our children to read because they have to; we need to encourage children to read because it’s fun. Whether they ever choose solo reading or not is another matter, but reading with our children is vital; it guarantees time together and it encourages imagination. I don’t sit comfortably within boundaries; I want Bryan to find his natural levels, then see where we can stretch him in order to broaden his mind. What a pleasure that is.

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