Friday 11 December 2009

Reading for Pleasure

I’ve just finished reading a post, by Anne Cassidy, about teachers and reading on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure.  Argument raged in the comments:  while some teachers encourage a love of reading, do others discourage it by picking books to pieces?

I don’t personally think junior school children should be analysing texts.  It's like teaching a child how a car engine works, before it understands what a car is for - ie: taking you someplace.  Reading is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and the point, please God, is to have fun.  More than fun.  Stories are like music, a way of transcendence, of expanding the frontiers of one’s life, of being swept up in something greater than oneself.  We need stories to be human.  Animals experience life, but they don’t attempt to make sense of it.  Human beings need to impose some kind of narrative order on the world.  It’s necessary for our souls.

So telling stories to children is one of the most important things you can do for them: and as most people nowadays don’t sit around the fire in the evenings yarning, teaching children to read helps them to help themselves to ALL THE STORIES THEY WILL EVER NEED.  Unbelievable riches, available quite cheaply, or free from the local library.

My original teacher was my mother. I don’t remember learning to read, but I do remember how she read aloud to me and my brother for years and years, long after we’d learned to read for ourselves.  I remember the pleasure of the story and the pleasure of the family closeness this brief fifteen or twenty minutes created every evening.

I went to several infant and junior schools without being very happy at any of them, and then, for one wonderful year when I was ten, I was sent to a very tiny private school – only 50 or so children, almost a dame school – run by one marvellous woman we all called ‘Mrs Butler’.  (Did the Ahlbergs know her, I wonder?)  Mrs Butler ended up with most of the local children who had any kind of problems, social, physical, psychological – and she did wonders. 

Her school was first and foremost a safe and happy place.  Second, it was tremendously creative.  Mrs Butler was a talented artist and one of the best readers-aloud I’ve ever heard.  The timetable – apart from arithmetic first thing – was each day a glorious surprise.  We might do painting or clay; we might listen to music, or sing, we might write stories or go for a nature walk.  And every afternoon Mrs Butler would read aloud to us a whole chapter from a book.  In the course of that one year she read us at least six entire books: I still remember them.  She read us the whole of 'Tom Sawyer', 'Brendon Chase', 'The Little Grey Men', 'The Wind in the Willows', 'The Forest of Boland Light Railway' and  'A Christmas Carol'.

We listened like mice.  And here’s the best thing.  We didn’t have to analyse the stories, or explain how the authors used similes or description, or write essays about them.  They were for our pleasure.  We loved them.  I still do.

When I get letters or emails from children who really love my books, they say impetuous, unpunctuated things like:  “Hi I think your books are fantastic they are the best books I ever read when are you going to write another one?’  But when I get letters that begin, “Dear Mrs Langrish, I really enjoyed reading your book Troll Fell because I like your descriptions,” I know with a sinking heart that I am reading a piece of homework, and though the child may have enjoyed my book, I will never know for sure.

Anyway, with the help of an old schoolfriend, I recently discovered my long-lost teacher’s address.  I’ve wanted to write to her for ages, to tell her how much that year I spent in her school meant to me, and how much it did for me.  So I’ve sent her a card and a copy of my most recent book.  Perhaps she’ll enjoy reading my story as much I once enjoyed listening to her.


  1. PS Have added you to my bloglist.

  2. What a lovely post. Oh, how I wish I'd been to Mrs Butler's school! Though I have my own happy memories of being read to - the Narnias at the end of the school day when I was about ten. Here's a thing: my A-level teacher insisted on reading out to us in class our prescribed text, Tess of the d'Urbervilles. From beginning to end over the first term. Even at age 16, it was magical - her soft Scottish lilt, that sad story... What an extraordinary teacher to do that.

  3. Quite right - no-one needs to learn the mechanics until much later - if at all. I still can't change a tyre on my car, come to that.

    Is that Troll Fell where you're standing in that photo? It certainly looks a bit like it. Watch out!

  4. Oh thank you all so much, and welcome to my blog! This is so exciting!

    Mary, thanks for adding me!

    Karen, your teacher sounds lovely. Great teachers should be celebrated.

    Nick, the hill is Stiperstones in Shropshire - an extraordinarily atmospheric place, and the original for 'Devil's Edge' in Dark Angels.

  5. Great post, Kath. It fits with a course I've been on recently, about setting up reading groups - where you don't take books away, read them and then discuss them; you read the books aloud, together. We met people who'd participated and loved the experience. There is a special power about reading aloud...

  6. Good post, Kath! I was reminded of the otherwise quite unpleasant headteacher of our primary school, who used to read aloud to us when I got to the top class, he read a book called 'Carcajou' about a wolverine, I must find out who it was by, and then Jack London. His almost deadpan voice let me go straight to the story without excessive mediation - as actors sometimes do when reading aloud - and also highlighted the bleakness of what he read. Thank you, Mr Parkinson - even if you DID force me to eat school food I found so disgusting I had to throw up afterwards

  7. I think some people actually do write in cliches because they know no better, while still being genuine about how they feel. So you probably have more real fans than you think.

  8. Great post - what a wonderful job good teachers do.

  9. I've bookmarked your new blog, Kath and look forward to hours of pleasure and good reading. Re Mrs Butler, how marvellous she sounds. We had a teacher like that at Roedean, of all places. I was there from when I was nearly 11 and for the next three years, every night we had a session in Miss Proud's drawing-room. She would read while we...this dates me!...embroidered!! Traycloths and stuff like that. I particularly remember Brother Dusty feet by Rosemary Sutcliffe and My family and other animals by Gerald Durrell. Those were the days, eh?
    An anecdote: I was on the bus the other day when a class of Year 6s was going to the movies to see Coraline. I told the teacher, a very young woman, who'd sat down next to me, that the book was ace and she turned to her colleague and said: "This lady says there's a book of this movie!"
    They are alas, a lot of them, just not AWARE or informed enough about what's out there. Mrs B will LOVE your book, Kath!

  10. I remember Brother Dusty-feet, Adele! And thankyou for the bookmark... Golly, though - I've often wondered if having that film of one's book is a mixed blessing. The danger is that the film takes over and obliterates the book. I think Disney killed Winnie the Pooh.