There is something truly magical about seeing a child become a reader. From their earliest interactions with a book, often in the lap of a parent, grandparent or caregiver, children will learn to turn the pages, to mimic text, to point at symbols and illustrations and eventually (most often with explicit instruction) identify and understand letters, sounds and words.

 Learning to read happens differently for all children. As a former teacher, I’m an advocate of a broad-brush approach – using phonics and sight words, vocabulary activities, rhymes, poems and immersion in stories to help students unlock the joy of reading. I’ve witnessed firsthand, that light bulb moment that can almost inexplicably happen from one day to the next, when a child suddenly ‘gets it’ and all those disparate skills come together. For most children reading will be something they improve on over time and for some, reading will be a struggle but it’s certainly one worth fighting for.

Reading is one of the most important skills a child will ever learn. Not only because it impacts their daily lives in so many practical ways, but research has proven that reading for pleasure – for the sheer joy of stories has hugely positive consequences. The OECD Reading for Change Report 2002 found that reading for pleasure is the single most important indicator of a child’s future success - even more powerful than socio-economic background. Exposure to fiction increases empathy, reduces stress and gives the reader an insight into the world view of others. It increases general knowledge and makes children smarter. Not to mention giving hours and hours of relatively inexpensive enjoyment.

My mum used to take me to the local public library every week and I still remember the joy of finding just the right book for me. Books were given as treasured gifts on birthdays and for Christmas and when I got hooked on a series like Trixie Belden or The Hardy Boys, they were the things I could convince my mother to add to the grocery basket at the supermarket.

For a child living in the south west of Sydney, books and stories opened my eyes to the world. I travelled to Switzerland with Heidi, to Kirin Island and beyond with Enid Blyton and to the Coorong with Colin Thiele. It was primarily through books that my knowledge of the world expanded, and I began to understand that there were many different ways to live.

As an author, during my school talks I often ask the children, ‘Who loves it when their teacher or parents read to them?’ This is a question prompted by the fact that some of my happiest memories of primary school, both as a child and a teacher centre around that exact activity. I can still remember sitting in our stifling classroom in the height of summer while my year five teacher read February Dragon by Colin Thiele. Right there in that room, the air outside heavily scented with eucalyptus and alive with the screeching of cicadas, hot westerly winds brought threats of our own dragon about to be unleashed.

There is so much joy in a shared story – not to mention a huge amount of learning, opportunities for discussion and exploration of characters, place, viewpoints and more. Sometimes I’m overwhelmingly disappointed by the lack of hands in the air when I ask this question. I recently had a teacher quite proudly tell me that he didn’t read to his class – he just put the book up on the smartboard and they read it for themselves – it was much easier. My heart almost broke on the spot. That’s not the joy of sharing a story – that’s immense frustration for most of the class. The children who read quickly become bored and lose track of the story – the children who read slowly can’t keep up – and who knows about the middle ground. He completely missed the point about the joy of shared reading. I encourage parents to read to their children long after they are able to read for themselves – for all the reasons cited above. Audio books are great too – especially on long car trips when everyone is listening and stories can be discussed.

Stories can help children to develop resilience and gain a better understanding of the world around them. One of my characters, Alice-Miranda, has a wonderfully positive outlook and is a terrific problem solver. Last year I was at a writers’ festival in Victoria and a mother and daughter came to have a book signed. The little girl had just moved schools and was finding it difficult but said that when she was struggling, she asked herself, ‘what would Alice-Miranda do?’. Her story brought tears to my eyes – to know that little character has given her strength and resolve is beyond wonderful.

Parents and teachers are pivotal in helping children become readers but so too are teacher librarians. Unfortunately, their roles are decreasing at a rapid rate and all over Australia we are losing their expert knowledge and influence. A grassroots campaign, Students Need School Libraries has received some attention in recent years but its success hinges on reaching parents who will support the cause to maintain and, in many cases, agitate the powers that be, to reinstate the position of teacher librarians in schools.

Students need expert teacher librarians to guide them to find the books that will make them readers and once they’ve mastered the basics to help them find books that will challenge them and improve their skills. According to the most recent Grattan Institute report, one third of all Australian students are failing to learn to read proficiently. Much of the problem would appear to be due to education systems persisting with polarised teaching methods that have been proven not to work for many children. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I was never a proponent of one method to teach reading. It’s about having a bag of tricks – teaching reading in a structured manner and also giving students who find it an easy skill to acquire the freedom to read at more advanced levels. Good teachers know that reading happens for children when they have a range of skills onboard. It’s also important not to hold the proficient readers back and to ensure that they have books appropriate to their skill set and maturity.

Teacher librarians are specialists at recommending books which will see students widen their reading choices and subsequently improve their skills.
As the current Patron of Somerset Storyfest, I have witnessed firsthand the joy of children meeting the writers and illustrators who produce the books they read. It’s so interesting to see the reactions from the students. Some are quite literally star struck from the moment they enter the same air space, while others are non-plussed, I’d say there are quite a few who really don’t even want to be there but by the end of the presentation, often attitudes are completely changed. Kids are inspired, they’re keen to read, they might even decide that being an author or illustrator is the coolest job in the world. I attend festivals all over Australia and in other parts of the world and the result is always the same. Being able to meet someone who writes or illustrates for a living is evidence of the saying, ‘if they can see it, they can be it.’ The idea of either of those jobs is suddenly tangible. For many kids, though the experience is simply about being inspired by stories. To read – to think, to challenge their ideas.

When you give a child the gift of reading it’s something that will stay with them forever and open many doors. Books help us to understand the world beyond their own and essentially, what it is to be human. We owe it to them to make sure that reading is a skill they have for life.

By Jacqueline Harvey
Educator and Author