How to get teens to #LoveToRead.

Waking up at 5am with a horrible cold, I got up and sat with my lemsip, flicking through the somewhat weird and wonderful world of early morning TV.  I remembered I’d yet to watch ‘The School that Got Teens Reading’.  This is just one of the programmes scheduled for the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign, so I settled down, between sneezes, to see what it was like.

I’d never heard of the exuberant Javone Prince before. He admitted to being somewhat nervous having no experience of schools other than his own schooling – I don’t blame him! I remember my first ever library lesson about ten years ago – I was absolutely terrified. But what he lacked in experience he made up for with enthusiasm; it was great to hear how much he loves reading and wanted to share that passion with the students.

Javone was to work with the most ‘reluctant’ of readers in Year 10 (14/15 year olds) for three weeks and in that time inspire them to read.  A hefty challenge; in my experience these are often the ‘forgotten’ generation when it comes to reading –  with their GCSEs to focus on it is considered they don’t have time for reading.  I always find this incredibly sad – not to mention, plain old wrong.  Surely it’s when they’re in the thick of a very stressful time, reading can be a blissful escape and remind them they’re not alone? Let alone all the other benefits.

A selection of teenagers, with a variety of reasons for being ‘reluctant’ arrived in the classroom. Some saw no value in reading, some just were adamant it was something they would ‘never’ do and some had learning needs.  And of course, the old ‘I’d rather be on social media/gaming’ reason. All things I’ve heard before and remind us of why we invest so heavily in encouraging reading from such a young age – in the hope they don’t get to this point of disliking it so much and so they have a reading history to embrace and return to if they do stray.

Javone gave them all a book to read – he spoke excitedly about how great a read it was and encouraged them to all start straightaway.  ‘One‘ by Sarah Crossan is indeed an incredible, and not surprisingly, award winning book. And a very interesting choice – told in freeone verse, each chapter is a poem, the story focusing on 16 year old conjoined twins. Some of the teenagers I’ve worked with would run a mile if I mentioned the ‘p’ word to them, such is their dislike of poetry.  Some would not want to read about something they considered to be ‘depressing’  – one Year 9 girl once commented to me ‘why are so many books written for people my age always about something sad?’.  But perhaps, a great choice because it would be different to anything they’ve read before and challenge them to think about a situation they had never faced.  A book that would enable them to have a shared reading experience, but one they wouldn’t have to study in the way they do their GCSE texts.

The next time the group were together, they’d made little or no progress, and Javone was absolutely gutted – and I felt for him.  I’ve been in that position where you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall: ‘JUST READ WILL YOU?? IT’S AMAZING!!’ you want to shout, but of course you don’t. Deep breath, and carry on.  Javone sought help in the shape of Helen Skelton, an author and TV presenter (Blue Peter).  She had an inspired idea to bring the story to life and literally show them the value of it. The group were split into pairs and then ‘tied’ together to give them the experience of being conjoined. Brilliant! Suddenly they could see for themselves what this life was like as a conjoined twin, and get a better idea of the characters and story in general.

There were two students whose ‘stories’ really struck a chord with me.  One student struggled with reading because she is dyslexic, having been diagnosed the year before. She felt held back by her learning issues, understandably so. Another student was the son of a farmer and this was his goal in life – to be a farmer, something he adored doing. He didn’t feel reading would add anything to this.  Both students were encouraged in different ways by Javone and Helen – and both found that they could in fact embrace reading with the right support and right book to read, once they understood, in a way that was unique to them, why reading was worth investing time in. With someone to listen to them and give them encouragement, these teens took massive steps forward in terms of their reading enjoyment – and also their general confidence.

Sometimes all that’s needed is a different way of thinking about stories and reading and how each teenager needs to engage with it in individually, so they can enjoy it. Unfortunately the one size fits all – or one book fits all – just doesn’t work for many students and this can be the crux of the issue.   Why would a teenager who doesn’t like to read in the first place pick up a book that’s not remotely interesting to them? Choice is so important.  It is time consuming helping teenagers in this way – but it makes all the difference and can change the way they see books and reading.   Of course, if every school had a well-stocked library with a professional, knowledgeable librarian to support students, it wouldn’t be so hard.

Throughout the programme there were references to reading research, some of which demonstrated the importance of parental involvement at home and how this can impact on reading habits. Having parents who read, encourage reading and provide support at home can transform reading experiences.  The parents interviewed in the programme talked about their desire for their children to read more – they just didn’t know how to help them. That’s why signposting resources to parents and giving them ideas on how to support their teenagers is so important. And if teenagers aren’t getting encouragement at home, then what happens at school becomes even more important. For this small group of teenagers to have this input via their school was amazing – but not all schools can do this and not all schools prioritise reading in this way. If they did, the story would be very different. And the resulting success of the intervention by Javone was down to so many things – his enthusiasm, persistence, the book, the encouragement, the involvement of Helen Skelton and later Russell Kane, the use of drama to bring the story to life.  It takes a lot of work to encourage reluctant readers.

This programme certainly made me think again about how I encourage my teenage sons with reading; even with the experience I have, when it’s your own children, it’s different. Whatever the circumstance, there isn’t a magic wand, but being aware of the challenges helps us understand how to encourage them.  It’s often easier to encourage younger readers; their natural curiosity for learning and love of stories is right there waiting to be nurtured. As a child hits the teenage years, it becomes harder (like lots of things in parenting that get harder with a teenager!) and therefore it’s easy to get despondent and think ‘they’ll never be a reader’.

This just isn’t the case – with so many amazing books written for young people, I do believe there is something out there for everyone. We just need to help them find it and discover the magic of stories. That’s why it’s so important we keep on keeping on, even if it is just one teenager at a time. It’s time well spent.


The School That Got Teens Reading is available on BBC iPlayer.

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