Thoughts on Reading – with the help of Year 8

Next Thursday the 4th March we will be celebrating World Book Day. In what has been a hard year for everyone, with periods of school closure, the shutting of public libraries and book shops, I want to celebrate books and reading. After all, developing the ability to make sense out of a bunch of squiggles is what helps us to understand each other, be able to exchange ideas, build our own self- expression and imagine new worlds. I am so thankful that the new digital era means we can order physical books for home delivery, download books to kindles within seconds and read online.

If we had had a pandemic in the 1980s, I doubt my reading progress would have suffered since I was fortunate to grow up in a house full of books. There were several hundred: novels spanning an entire century together with corresponding critical theories, encyclopaedias, scary picture books from my grandparents' childhoods of the ‘struwwelpeter’ variety, biographies, books about the natural world, and atlases. There was the Brownowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’ which was a great weight to lay over pressed flowers and the heavy red volume of my great, great grandfather’s memoirs from his experiences as Surgeon General in the Indian Mutiny.

When I wasn’t making up dance routines to ‘Fame’ and ‘Wake me up before you go, go,’ I would have my head in a book, for no book that ever made its way into the house that was not a library book ever made its way back out. There were collections of Roald Dahl, Arthur Ransome, E. Nesbit, C.S Lewis and my favourites - the beautifully illustrated ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’ and ‘Ballet shoes’ by Noel Streatfeild.

But what about Reading in 2021? Childhood is certainly a little different, but at school children still spend a proportion of every day learning to read and reading to learn. I wanted to know if children at Yateley Manor, who have had such a disrupted year, still thought reading for pleasure was important. Did they miss their school library or had digital devices, mobile phones and ‘gaming’ taken over? Through the wonders of Microsoft Teams, I asked Year 8 for their thoughts on reading and I would like to share them with you.

On the question of whether they saw reading as an important part of their education, the responses were emphatic. Year 8s know that vocabulary and imagination are boosted. One insightful pupil said she enjoyed reading because, ‘Reading allows you to learn without realising it.’ Surely that has to be the best kind of learning! Children in Year 8 told me they were generally reading for pleasure for about two to three hours a week; Reading has become a habit for them and one that they enjoy.

The range of novels Year 8 read is hugely impressive, from class readers that have made an impression such as ‘Private Peaceful’ and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ to books such as ‘Wonder’ by R.J Palacio. Reading fiction builds empathy and this was clearly evidenced in a couple of statements by the Year 8s.  One wrote about ‘The Fault in our Stars,’ which she said, ‘enlightened me in the different struggles some people have in life,’ whilst another recognised, ‘how lucky I am to be well off,’ after reading Nemesis by Catherine Macphail, a book about a boy who does not remember his past.

The connection between reading for pleasure and strong mental health is becoming clearer and I was so pleased to read how our Year 8 pupils value the school library. The weekly ‘library lessons’ offer much more than just a chance to browse books and improve vocabulary. There were so many mentions of the calm and peaceful atmosphere, of a chance to ‘de-stress’. One pupil commented that the library lesson was a ‘break from fast pace work and a chance to sort of fall into a different world for a while.’ What a wonderful metaphor for escapism and, of course, when you emerge from a different world back into your own, you have perhaps gained a new set of weapons and a new armoury for dealing with whatever life throws at you next.

My final question about books concerned the future. Would there still be physical books in 100 years? Responses to this question were thoughtful and eloquent. Most recognised the environmental issues of paper and balanced these with the new digital age. Perhaps a little sadly, most predicted that real physical books would become increasingly rare although I was buoyed by one more optimistic comment: ‘even as technology is developing, now we are realising how important physical books can be.’ For the time being the future of books seems safe as we all enjoy a break from the various ‘screens’ that have dominated our lives more during the pandemic. So next week, and especially on World Book Day, do take the time to pick up a physical book, read to your children, share some stories and boost your mental health!

Antonia Robinson
Head of English