I recently completed the UTas reading groups survey which made me think about what it was, other than the book itself, that created that feeling of enjoyment when I read.
Sharing books with babies involves lots of physical contact with cuddles, activities like pointing and touching, and conversation about the pictures. All this is mutually enjoyable for the small person and the reader. At the monthly Reading in the Market Place at Prospect, I find myself sitting on a hard floor surrounded by a handful of little people. Watching their faces as they hear the story and see the pictures is amazing. How seriously they take the story, how solemnly they concentrate and then giggle or laugh at the pictures. How eager they are to answer or ask questions or add information about what they see and hear. However there is one little girl who regularly attends these sessions but she has never shown any facial expression or volunteered responses. But last time when finally it was just her and me on the mat she finally pointed to a picture, named a few objects and gave a smile. I feel sure that she enjoys the experience and I know I certainly do.
As we become independent readers, a reading guide no longer necessary, how do we compensate for that interactive element so important to baby readers? There are several ways perhaps.
Where and when we read becomes important. The reader finds a comfortable place to ‘curl up with a good book’; in a bean bag, on a lounge in the sun in summer, in front of a roaring fire in winter, snuggled in bed after a day of work or school. Whatever the physical situation, the environment enhances the enjoyment of the intellectual activity of reading.
As independent readers at school, the system sometimes creates quite the opposite effect. There are different types of group reading in schools. At primary level teachers regularly read stories to the whole class allowing the children to find a comfortable position on the mat, lying on the floor with a cushion, head down on the desk.... The situation created is similar to that of reading to young children and many primary children really love to be read to. The secret here is to find a book that will appeal to a group of twenty five or more individuals. Not easy but many primary teachers manage to preserve that feeling of added enjoyment by creating a comfortable physical environment.
At secondary level the opportunity to create that convivial atmosphere is more difficult. For a start sitting at a desk or table is a far cry from the comfortable reading environments a reader usually chooses at home and asking teenagers to ‘sit on the mat’ would be a disaster. And who hasn’t experienced reading a book around the classroom, each student reading a few paragraphs in turn? For the fast reader this is excruciating, for the hesitant reader, reading aloud is torture, for the one that reads ahead, like me, how embarrassing when your turn comes and you have lost the place! But how else can a teacher be sure that every student reads the book? One could question the validity of having set texts that everyone has to read but that is still the way the curriculum is designed in secondary and senior secondary schools. So for many students the reading in the English curriculum becomes a turn off rather than an encouragement or a value added experience. Some enterprising teachers have overcome these problems but some old habits die hard and some can’t be avoided.
So after school, how do mature readers seek to wring all that is possible from their reading? Well perhaps some of the really dedicated readers join book groups. Picture a convivial group sitting round a coffee table in comfortable chairs sipping coffee or perhaps a wine. What better environment than that for adding to your reading experience. The opportunity to not only read a book, but then discuss it with fellow readers, is a fulfilling experience akin to watching the faces on those small children at the market place or cuddling your grandchild on your lap while reading a beautiful picture book. When readers don’t agree about a book, the different perspectives that members bring to the discussion helps to broaden one’s appreciation and understanding of the book. I have come to many a discussions not liking a book and left with a much more positive attitude and appreciation. When readers do agree, the enjoyment of sharing relished events, characters, or insights makes the reading more valuable and agreement reinforces the validity of one’s own ideas and opinions.
If adult readers gain significantly from discussion of books would younger readers find the same post- reading satisfaction? Would informal book groups in schools at all levels provide added value for those students who love reading? Would just reading the book, enjoying the contents and sharing the thoughts stimulated, without the onus of doing work on the book, encourage more young people to enjoy and voluntarily partake in reading? I’d love to hear from young readers and teachers about this.