“I used to read just because I really liked reading, now the thought of opening a book makes me wanna puke.”
I felt incredibly sad when a 13-year-old girl said this to me yesterday.
I was doing an exercise in tense with some twelve and thirteen-year-olds in my teen writers’ groups. I asked them to write a one-paragraph recount of a single event from the school holidays they’d just finished. It was a straightforward activity where they’d write in first-person past tense and then rewrite the same paragraph in first-person present tense. The focus was not on the content of the paragraph, but on the process of identifying and editing consistent tense. I thought it was a simple activity that would ease the kids into another term of writers’ group. I was wrong. It created chaos!
They groaned and complained and tried everything tactic under the sun to avoid doing the exercise. Eventually I conceded.
“Okay, let’s just talk about it then.”
“Nothing to talk about,” they chorused.
“What do you mean nothing to talk about? You just had two weeks holiday, what did you do?”
“You must’ve done something. What did you do after you got out of bed each morning?”
The discussion that followed was certainly NOT what I was expecting.
In my mind, school holidays meant chilling out with friends, maybe catching a movie or going shopping, sometimes a camping trip (even if it was in the 5 acre backyard), or (mostly) just relaxing in the sun by myself with a good book.
Reading was my bliss. Everything else in my life melted away and I lost myself in another reality—a more exciting, alternate reality that was safer and kinder than the one I was living. Reading created a space in my life where, for a few hours at a time, I didn’t have to deal with the stress or dysfunction that was my childhood. Reading was my peace. But I digress…
The kids in my writers’ groups are bright, engaged students and keen readers and writers. They hadn’t balked at a writing exercise before and I wanted to understand why. I targeted one of the more vocal/social kids and asked her to give me a blow-by-blow account of her first week of holidays.
“Homework, watch tv, wander around the house, more pretend homework…”
“You too?” one of the others asked.
I stayed silent as the conversation took off and the rest of the group joined in. I listened. And was surprised. And saddened. These kids spent their school holidays counting down the days until term started and they could get back to school. They didn’t have the freedom to just ‘play.’ They couldn’t have friends over or visit others and hang out doing kid stuff. Some didn’t have the freedom to choose what television programs or DVDs they watched, or even what books they read. One even had the home wireless switched off before her parents left for work to prevent her ‘wasting time’ online.
Mostly, they had to do homework. But being in Year 7 they didn’t have a whole lot of set homework to do, certainly not enough to keep them occupied everyday of the holidays. So they did ‘pretend’ homework to appease their caregivers. They locked themselves in their rooms and spent the time online, or for those without access to internet, they read. Because there was nothing else they could do.
Their lives are about achieving academic success. And it seems that developing social skills and interpersonal communication skills that result from unstructured ‘play’ is not valued for these kids. Hearing them talk about how they feel being restricted to the family home, with or without anyone for company (some were only children with both parents working), was heartbreaking.
But I guess what was even more heartbreaking was witnessing the beginnings of the loss of reading for pleasure. Because, as they told me, there is nothing fun about being forced to read books that were not necessarily of their own choosing, just to pass the time.
Reading was becoming a pressure cooker—a vacuum into which they resisted falling. Resentment of all books was seeping into their consciousness. Some began to forget the pleasure of anticipation when they discovered a book they could really get into. The joy of browsing through a bookshop or library reading blurbs and flicking through the first few pages to find something that appealed was becoming part of a childhood they were being forced to leave behind.
As the pressure to achieve began to weigh heavily on them, reading became just one more thing they ‘had’ to do during an adolescence and young adulthood that spared no time for leisure in the race to university.
Those who managed to continue reading for the sake of reading, or reading for pleasure, did so as a clandestine activity for the more rebellious, as the older they became the more it was perceived as “time wasted” by some of the adults in their lives.
I’m not sure if it’s the nature of the selective school they attend, or if it’s a cultural thing (I suspect the latter), but I found it incredibly saddening. I know that literacy is a vital aspect to improving educational outcomes for all kids. But I’m not alone in the knowledge that literacy development will increase exponentially in kids across the academic spectrum if they can choose to read narrative that is relevant to them, rather than being forced to read for the sake of results.
Reading for pleasure is a joy that ALL kids need an opportunity to experience. And to foster a lifelong love of reading, we need to allow kids access to material of their own choosing, to read at their own pace, in their own time. Whether that is under the covers in bed at night with a torch, or on the lounge at home in the school holidays, please, just let kids read fiction.