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Saturday 13 February 2016

How do we really know what children want to read?

Image result for children reading booksDuring my career as a teacher, I have often bought books for my students to read. Yes, the library at school can purchase the books but I have bought them in response to conversations we have had about their book interests and the books stay in our classroom for them to access all the time. I have also bought books knowing that they will only appeal to one or two students and therefore would not be purchased by our library because the material had such a limited audience. So, having bought many books for my students over the years, I would like to think that I have a fairly good idea of children’s reading preferences.

This brings me to the wider question that when a book is being commissioned or published, who decides what children want to read? Is it the publishers in response to the talent of the writers they promote with their preferences for genre and content or the requirement to fulfil a contract with another story? Is it the authors who have children and/or work with children and think they know what will engage a reader or just write about topics that interest them but pitch it at a younger audience? Perhaps it is current events, such as the focus on the Gallipoli centenary last year that led to saturation levels of children’s books on World War 1 being printed? Do teachers and parents make these decisions based on their childhood favourites ensuring ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’ remains in print? Are the interests and needs of readers being directed by everyone except the children themselves?

Last year I had my Year 5 students write a fairy tale for an audience and they chose the Kindergarten students. Despite my suggestions and encouragement to speak to their audience, they wrote away merrily without ever having spoken to a student from their target audience nor did they spend time reading books the Kindergarten students borrowed from the library, so they could develop a picture of their preferences, i.e., get to know their audience.

When they gave me their stories to read I said that before I marked them they needed to do a final edit after reading their story to a Kindergarten student. They did this and the results were illuminating. Rather than the younger students just saying the story the older student read to them was good, they were quite eloquent in what really mattered to them. In fact, one student became so loquacious that the older student had to get a pencil and pad to make notes.

The feedback the Kindergarten students gave to the older authors ranged from: “The story is okay but the sentences are not very interesting.” and “The trees don’t look the same as the story sounds. They need more leaves.” to “I really liked the story but you have too much white on the page around the pictures.” Needless to say, there was much rewriting (and colouring-in) at a frantic pace.

I wonder if my classroom experience mirrors the big, wide world.

Helen Rothwell is a primary school teacher.

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