To read or not to read…is anyone asking the question?

By Emma White………

When I came to home education six years ago I never considered that zero internet and one shared family laptop between four may be a barrier to success. And looking back – it made no difference.  Our results – two boys, 18 GCSES, 15 Grade A*, three Grade A, one AS at Grade A and seven more A Levels and one further AS to go – hoping for all Grade A or better. And never once have any of us bemoaned our personal dearth of tutors, school, IT, internet, online provision or hardware. We were totally alone. None of these shortcomings crossed my mind until COVID-19 struck and the world of education upheld the lack of Internet and laptop for some families as a reason why education must stop for everyone – claiming it couldn’t possibly take place if some were disadvantaged.

I too was in a hard place six years ago – benefits, housing association accommodation, living hand to mouth, an estranged partner, safeguarding issues, a 13 year old son who had disappeared to the other side of the world, endless court battles. But I declared it was time to pull up my big girl pants and face the music. We would find a way and only think of solutions, not problems.

I suppose I turned back to my own education. I took my O’ Levels in the early 1980s in the days when textbooks and solid reading were everything. I remember how joyous we were on those rare occasions when the school television on long tall stilts was wheeled in for an isolated moment of indulgence to give us a new dimension on learning. For the most part, we read.

It all boiled down to reading. If we wanted to get ahead we turned to our textbooks. There were no other options. And did we read! From age 16, when my pony filled weekends were over, I was delivered to Accrington Library on a Saturday morning to choose background reading for my A Levels. It was suggested by school and like many others, I accepted it as a good idea and spent my weekends rifling through the History section.  So when life took a turn for the worse for me and I found myself unintentionally home-educating, one of the first things we did was join our local Library.

Looking back, I took up where my own, personal educational experience had ended. We would read our way through. I would talk and my boys would make notes. They were Year 5 and Year 7 at the time and I remember their initial shock when they looked to me for Power Point and other Zazzy more engaging methods and procured me with storyboards in lieu of writing. At first, they complained about writing too much. They now write incredibly fast and always finish with time to spare in exams! Much of what we did was conversational and delivered with humour. It was relaxed and happy but the underlining platform on which everything stood was reading. I’m not saying it was the best way but it was all we had, and under some very challenging circumstances it served us well.

Fortunately, since very early childhood my children had been encouraged to read. Pocket money was earned not given and earned only through reading.  They didn’t have to read, it was their choice and my youngest was reluctant at first but he valued Star Wars Lego more than anything in the world and his only currency was reading. The more he read the more Lego he could buy. We made time for reading as a family and we still do now.  Summer afternoons we sit together and read and Christmas presents in our world are books.

The sad truth is that most people don’t enjoy reading. They see it as a chore and this includes teachers. Follow social media and you will see the endless posts from teachers wanting quick fix solutions and access to shared resources. Rarely does the suggestion of ‘buy the text book’ come up. I know there are budget implications but here’s another point; on the most humble of incomes I managed to stealthily buy second hand textbooks to see us through. Our first GCSES came at the time when the new 9-1 grading was being introduced so the old A*-G books were readily available. Having bought a second hand A*-G one for Geography we prioritised it before the new 9-1 usurped the old A* to G and my youngest, in Year 8 and aged just 12 faced his first GCSE before our text book became obsolete. He got a Grade A.  I confess, I didn’t want to have to buy the new edition.

Whilst on the point of my youngest son, he’s still only 15, has nine GCSES, the Grade A in Geography of course and Grade 9 in all eight others – all self-taught, and he wants to study Biochemistry. He’s just completed all his A Level content in Biology, Chemistry and Physics and is almost past the winning post in Maths so his plan now is to do an AS in English Literature. For a child with a natural science bent he relishes reading too. After discovering the Edexcel English Literature specification he declared he would explore each theme and read widely before choosing his favoured texts. I was persuaded to get on board too, so my time has been devoted to putting my History books to one side and reading with him. Whilst I settled on Never Let Me Go and War of the Worlds he has opted for Hard Times and Atonement with the focus on Childhood and he’s read more Dickens to support his plan so he will lead the way on this and I will follow behind him.

His brother is the same. He wants to study History and Modern Languages and become a Lawyer and over the course of the last 12 months his scope in reading has been astonishing. He has effortlessly read 18 extra serious texts in both English and French to broaden his knowledge.  No pressure, he simply devours books. When I consider why, it is obvious, they have always seen reading as a solution. They do now have the Internet and social media and a Play Station but at a crucial time of their lives, when their minds were most malleable they only had reading and that is their love, their passion and what they do best. They were stuck in a challenging place and had the benefit of boredom and the inspiration of loneliness – and they used their time wisely.

I’m not a Luddite, I simply didn’t have the money to do it differently but I’ve just never placed too much value on having the latest gadgets and I am no ‘early adopter’ when it comes to all things tech! I simply prefer books. My own personal indulgence is reading about the Angevin Empire and from birth my children have seen me read prodigiously. I remember leaving a book on Mary Tudor on a train and the lengths I went to retrieve it stuck in the minds of my boys. I did get it back eventually – to us books are like gold dust!

What makes me sad is how the same quarter who cite lack of internet and no laptop as a reason to give up are the very same people who before Covid relentlessly pushed the conundrum of cyber bullying and gaming addiction. In having a Play Station and being at the mercy of Social Media one may assume these children (obviously different children) have both funds for a Play Station and access to the Internet but remote learning has still been tossed on to the ‘too hard pile’.  Call me cynical but the truth is we are at the mercy of a loud collective voice looking for problems not solutions. Where there is a will there is a way and right now, countless children who have tried hard to maintain progress are to have their chances thwarted in the name of those who have had disadvantages that they simply cannot overcome. And we must all suffer for the consequences.

There is a solution. Schools need to promote reading like never before. Technology makes us deviate more towards headline grabbing and selective interest, reading sound bites of only what catches the eye. If it takes longer than 10 seconds we zone out. Children at home could be supplied with textbooks so that unreliable or non existent internet would be an irrelevance, but reading has to be a mind-set instilled from an early age. It has to become a default setting. It has to be viewed as a muscle which needs to be kept strong.

Unfortunately, technology has seen us turn our backs on reading as we lust after new-fangled ways to make children engage. The solution is obvious, encourage them and reward them through reading. Teach them to take ownership of their studies, to pore over specifications and buy into their learning experience. It may seem like a step backward on the technology front but whilst the world has taken us to new levels of privilege and disadvantage in terms of material assets, it is the one skill that can make us all equal.

For all our collective cleverness, this pandemic has brought us all to our knees. A bit of old fashioned reading may just be our saviour.

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