Reading, Writing and High school.

We have a son who has just finished his highschooling.  As he waited for his exam results, I thought once again about the joy of reading.  I love reading.  It’s a whole world of escape, excitement, beauty, thoughtfulness, joy and sadness that I can wander off in.  

We’ve had two kids go all the way through highschool now, and as I’ve listened to conversations over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that studying English (at least in NSW!) is responsible for turning a lot of kids off reading.  I’m sure it’s not meant to, and I’m sure every English teacher would be horrified to hear that.  (I’m horrified to hear that!)

There’s a few reasons for it, in my non researched, completely anecdotal opinion.

Firstly, some kids grow up in families that don’t read a lot.  This is sad, and as we’ve often given books as birthday presents to our kids’ friends over the years, I suspect there are a few fabulous stories sitting dusty and unloved on shelves.  What we model, our kids often copy.  

Secondly, school reading lists take the joy of reading from kids.  For year eleven, both of our kids had to read “Emma” by Jane Austen.  Now I don’t know about your kids, but our seventeen year old son did not want to read “Emma.”  He wouldn’t have picked it up in a month of Sundays voluntarily.  Some of you may now be saying, “Well that’s good, he’s now been exposed to a piece of wonderful literature that he might never have experienced otherwise.”  And that would be true, except that he’s a boy, who reads Fantasy, watches action and thriller movies, plays footy, and couldn’t care less about what he wears.  Emma?  Really?  I might add that I haven’t yet met a boy who really enjoyed Emma.  Intellectually, I know that there are likely to be some out there, but they are probably quite scarce.  In fact, our daughter has similar tastes as our sone, and struggled with Emma.  Apparently the audio book was quite helpful with insomnia, though.

Add to that the requirement to dissect said book into small pieces and analyse it. 

Year 11 was followed by Year 12, during which they both read Romulus My Father (both didn’t mind this one) and Frankenstein (both didn’t like it) along with some poetry by Ted Hughes and Keats and a bit of Blade Runner as a media comparison.  I liked Blade Runner, and I thought the kids would too, but I was wrong.  Or perhaps they would have enjoyed it if they hadn’t had to analyse it.

Despite both thinking that Romulus was basically OK, it wasn’t a book that either would read again.  Sure, maybe they’ll go back later and revisit it, but who knows.  Fortunately, both of ours have the reading habit already.  For a kid without a reading habit?  I have little hope that the literature choices available to their teachers (as per the prescribed texts in the syllabus) are going to help them infuse the joys of reading in their students.

As an author, I can only shake my head in dismay.  I might have written (I hope I’ve written!) a good story that a lot of people can enjoy, but the vast majority of our kids’ friends have never picked up a book for a good fun read.  Consequently, they’ll never pick up mine (even if picking up your mate’s Mum’s book was actually considered cool), or another author’s book.  This is a problem.

Reading anything is preferable to reading nothing in my opinion, and I always try and convince teens to at least have a go.  When we took a pile of boys to The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and the second movie ended abruptly, as the book does, one of them said “But no!  It can’t end there!  That was seriously the best movie I’ve seen for years!”  I asked him if he’d read the books, and as he replied in the negative, suggested that if he wanted to know what happens sooner, rather than in a couple of years, he could start reading.  I’m not sure he’s taken me up on it, but you never know!

Obviously, not all of our tastes in literature will be the same, but I do think that educators need to engage their students, and I think that if we don’t do something about encouraging teens to enjoy literature, rather than regarding it as a chore to be suffered through for the sake of the almighty ATAR, then we’re effectively shooting ourselves in the foot.

This is a thought provoking piece from Kate Forsyth’s Blog.  Please read it.  It never grows old, and it describes why fantasy rings so true with many of us.  There’s also another blog post that talks about Enid Blyton.  I’d like to quote from it.  “However, all the evidence goes to show that children who are given the gift of reading for pleasure read voraciously. They read everything they can lay their grubby little mitts on. They read all their lives.”

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