Reading the right book at the right time

By Mrs Sue Grotherr—Head of Secondary School
The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.  (Matilda by Roald Dahl)

The Westerlies are sweeping in reminding us with their gusts of biting wind that it’s August. It’s that time of the year when the big wheel at the Ekka looms over Bowen Hills. It’s that time of the year when mothers create magical costumes transforming children from an everyday school child into Pippi Longstocking, Harry Potter or Peter Pan for Book Week.

While the Westerlies haven’t subsided, and the Ekka has been cancelled, the Children’s Book Council of Australia are facing an optimistic future for Book Week and have pencilled in an October date.

Book Week, like the interhouse athletics carnival and the Year 12 Formal, is part of the rhythm of the school year and its removal from the August calendar is yet another disruption to the cadence of school life.

Book Week shines a spotlight on stories and reading through library activities, book character parades and storytelling.  It provides opportunities to remind teachers and parents of the joys and benefits of reading for pleasure. 

Although our official Book Week in August has been moved to October, we can still pause and take time to encourage our children to read, to imagine and to wonder.

A few years ago, I unexpectedly crossed paths with a student whom I had previously taught in Year 7. We reminisced and talked about our time together in a small, regional Queensland school.

She then asked, “Do you know what I remember most about being in your class?”

I shook my head.

“You used to read to us.”

I recalled the afternoon ritual of reading to the class for fifteen minutes after lunch each day. Such is the power of stories that a decade after sitting in that classroom, this student held precious memories of our daily reading time.

However, books provide more than an escape from the routines of life. Children who read for pleasure broaden their general knowledge, develop vocabulary and learn to express their ideas. The OECD has found students who are highly engaged in a wide range of reading activities are more likely than other students to be effective learners and to perform well at school. (PISA in focus, 2011). Reading helps students to think critically, improves comprehension skills and enhances the ability to communicate ideas—skills necessary for success across all subjects.

Yet research indicates, as students enter their secondary years of schooling, they drift away from reading — exchanging books for games, videos and social media. Yet it is during these years the knowledge and understanding from stories can have the most profound effect.

Students will tell you they "don’t like reading" or "they don’t have time." My response is "You just haven’t found the right book yet," because I know if you find a book that absorbs you, you will find time to read.

While I was a teacher-librarian in a school, the book 'My Side of the Mountain' by Jean George became the red-hot popular novel amongst the Year Six class. Angela, who had learning difficulties and struggled with reading came to the library and asked to borrow it. She marched out of the library clutching it proudly under her arm. I expected to see it returned within the next few days. Two weeks later, Angela came in and dropped the book down the return chute. She had finished the book and her eyes lit up as she talked about Sam’s fight for survival in the wilderness. This was the ‘right book at the right time’ for Angela and she had persisted until she had finished it.

Stories can sweep us away, make our hearts pound, prompt us to laugh and bring us to tears. The by-product of reading for pleasure is improvement in academic achievement. We may not have Book Week in August but we can all do our bit to find the ‘right book’ for the young people in our lives.

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