Some children struggle to read, while others can but don’t. Authors Frank Cottrell Boyce and Keith Gray and Mairi Kidd (Barrington Stoke) joined together to discuss barriers to reading and the way in which the approach can be modified to support young people on the journey to enjoyable reading.
First an introduction to publisher Barrington Stoke. They publish for children with particular attention to groups who won’t read and can’t read. “We focus too much on the child,” Mairi says, on books not being engaging. “There’s two sides to every story. Quite often books are at fault.” Several comments they receive from parents say that their children wouldn’t sit and read, but had read a chapter, or even a page, of Barrington Stoke books, which is exactly what they aim to achieve.
In terms of dyslexia, “there’s not something wrong with someone with dyslexia, it’s just a difference.” They have their own font designed to have a lot of shape, making each letter unique, not just a rotated version of another, and increased spacing. They have thick pages so text doesn’t show through, and pages are cream to reduce visual stress.
They also are careful of language, some words work better, like ‘wizard’ over ‘magician’, for example. “It’s not about making language boring and flat,” she continues, but it’s about tweaking the syntax to suit the oral storyteller.
“We all won’t read sometime,” she concludes, noting audio has also got to be part of a story diet, not just the written word.
Frank Cottrell Boyce begins, “I think [that related to audio] gets missed out a lot; I was read to in communal reading.” People consider reading as a solo pursuit, but “The teacher reading to the class was being read to with nothing being asked back. It allowed stories to stay in my brain.” JK Rowling caused shared enjoyment in the generation that followed – even everyone reading the same books makes it a communal pursuit. “Reading is not a natural activity,” he continues. “It’s complicated. At school every stage has to be passed to move on, but that’s not how we read.” He thinks the idea that you have to explain is wrong. There should be a sense of a safe place in reading.
“You surrender yourself to a process in writing your book,” continues Frank, “but getting feedback from Barrington Stoke was interesting.” He had never considered how changing names could make an impact, especially as his dream reader is an adult reading to kids.
“We massively undervalue listening and speaking,” he says. “What’s your motivation if you haven’t been read to? Something has to open the box of delights […] often the first experience of reading can be stressful at school.”
Keith Gray was a reluctant reader, how did he turn into a passionate one? “I was a case of ‘I won’t’ rather than ‘I can’t’. I was literally labelled a reluctant reader, teachers loved to categorise. I was never given a good enough reason to read growing up.
“I was taught how to read words, not how to enjoy them. I didn’t realise you could get so much from a book because school had not told me.” He recalls a teacher taking a lone page from a book and making them highlight metaphors and so on – the story didn’t matter. He was recommended The Machine Gunners by a friend – “reading suddenly felt daring and rebellious. If I hadn’t read this I wouldn’t be sitting here today.
“I’d talk to my friend about how it made us feel, not the metaphors. It’s so different to how we read at school.” At school he read Romeo and Juliet and was moved by the experience, and wrote an essay on the topic; his classmate loathed it and jumped through the academic loops. He got a C, his classmate an A. “Who do you think Shakespeare would want to be reading it?”
“Books are for life, not just for homework.”
The conversation opens to the audience and is a very interesting and diverse one, touching on labels, the school system, approaches several teachers take and the importance of reading to their class. It’s just the tip of the iceberg on the topic, and there are differing opinions on several areas, but there is one goal in mind by all involved: the best way to help children with reading.
“If kids have to work at reading,” says Mairi, “give them something worth reading.”