The First Year of a Successful Reading Programme for Children
What follows is based on what worked in the school setting in which it was trialed. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to follow the same time frames. It’s possible to scale things down based on these parameters.
The First Weeks: Establishing the Programme
The first year focuses on happiness.
The idea is therefore to remove anything from a child’s sphere of reading which might promote unhappiness.
In the first weeks of the year, an extensive survey and interviews are undertaken to develop each child’s individual reading situation and plan, including:
• the establishment of reading schedules at school and at home
• the devising of a graduated tailor-made programme including each child’s own choices of reading material
• the development of audio-visual aids to raise interest such as key literature-based films and/or programmes
• drawing up remedial programmes if required.
It is advisable to have existing booklists and reading resources collated into a cohesive catalogue of materials covering fiction and non-fiction. In other words, you need a reasonably-sized library, or access to one. This helps children make sensible choices for their reading.
Reading will never go ‘in’ if no time or importance is allocated to it. Part of any programme is therefore a sensible schedule which gives time for reading. But at the beginning this should be as flexible as possible. If you’re running this programme in a school setting, you should be allowing at least five hours a week for reading, preferably much more. Ten hours a week is about the right order of magnitude in total. But running some kind of ‘stopwatch’ system is highly inadvisable, especially in the first year - the idea that the clock is ticking and that they must read exactly between such-and-such times smacks too much of duress to children, and will immediately ‘turn off’ a struggling reader. Much better to loosely allocate times and encourage reading at any other time that the child chooses - on the bus, in the car, early in the morning, late(ish) at night and so on. In practice, you will find that the programme often produces children who ‘covertly’ read - that is, they try and sneak more time for reading into their lives, rather than protest or avoid it. And that’s exactly what you want: the more time they are reading, the better the situation will get, as long as it is their choice.
You’ll find out more about this in the book How to Get Children to Read More.
Tailor-made Programme of Child’s Own Choices
This is the central point of the first year and is the make-break point of the programme: at first, a child should be encouraged to read only material that he or she has chosen himself or herself.
That means what it says.
At the beginning, you must throw open the doors to anything (as long as it is not inappropriately adult material). That can range from books that you might consider far too simple for an individual child, to magazines which you might think contain very little of value, to the backs of cereal packets at breakfast time.
This might feel counter-intuitive at first. A child who has been struggling with reading will at first push the boundaries of this. They will claim that they have read the back of a newspaper over the dinner table, or seven cereal packets, or a baby’s book. But this will only be at the very beginning. The various incentives of the programme that you will learn about shortly will rapidly guide the child into a more focused approach.
One of the difficulties that struggling readers face is that they are ‘put off’ by the mere ‘look’ of a page of text. Seeing a standard book page, full of words, they want to run a mile or feel immediately bored. These children are not ‘anti-reading’ - experience on the programme suggests that they are desperate to read, in fact, and feel excluded and ‘stupid’ through their apparent inability to do so - but they are running into ‘invisible brick walls’ which they don’t understand. You can assist them in climbing over these unseen obstacles by promoting an audio-visual approach as much as you can. This includes a range of options, as you will find out later.
So in the first weeks of the programme, no matter what the setting, you should establish:
• a basic schedule for reading (no matter how flexible)
• a very wide range of reading materials and the agreement with the children concerned as to what they are allowed to read (which should be pretty much anything they like)
• audio-visual aids to encourage children who back away from a large amount of text - this can include picture books, comics, movies and other video and audio materials.
The first weeks are the most labour-intensive weeks. Once you have established these basics, the administration required to run the programme for the first year gets much easier.
But once you have set all this up in the first week, what do you actually do to get the product of a happy reader?