Alex Hems: Head's Blog Nov 24, 2017
Next week is Book Week Scotland. St George's will be hosting author, film-maker and Everest summiteer Matt Dickinson, who will be returning to school after launching his Everest Challenge with the Lower School before half term. I so often hear from parents that their daughters start to lose interest in reading in their early teens, when books compete with so many other distractions: social life; growing numbers of commitments; social media; homework. Yet we know how beneficial to long-term academic achievement and emotional development reading can be. Being a strong reader contributes to vocabulary acquisition, broader general knowledge and encouragement of empathy. Life is infinitely enriched by the pleasure of gaining a greater understanding of the richness of human life across centuries or continents, the satisfaction of finding one's own experience impeccably voiced in a line of poetry or the challenge of grappling with complex and difficult ideas expressed in more than 140 characters. I strongly recommend Daniel T Willingham's book The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, published earlier this year for anyone interested in the science behind reading; this is both a clear and scholarly account of the process of learning to read, and a powerful exposition of the impact that reading can have on the mind.
Willingham acknowledges the difficulties that parents and teachers can face when encouraging reluctant readers, particularly adolescents, and he explores different approaches to building motivation. Simply telling a young person that reading is good for them is not enough, and may often be counter-productive. Reading stories with our children when they are small is an enormous pleasure, and of course invaluable, but as they grow older, with later bedtimes and more homework, or with changing reading tastes, this may start to drop out of family routine. As with so many other aspects of parenting and education, it is the unspoken messages of the culture that we establish at school and at home which he identifies as the key to success. Making a habit of discussing of what we, as adults, are reading, and opening up conversations about articles and books that are around the house, or which influenced us as teachers, is a good starting point. My day does not feel complete, however late it ends, if I have not enjoyed a few pages of whatever book is on the go at the time, but I am sure I am not alone in realising that my children hardly ever see me reading, because they are already in bed by the time I reach for my book. Willingham suggests finding a moment in the week when, however briefly, the family will take some time to read together. It does not matter if the reading matter is a novel, a newspaper, a journal or other reference text; the key is to make it shared time.
At St George's we are blessed with well-stocked libraries, and staff passionate about sharing their own love of reading with our students. We promote 'reading conversations' in school by talking about the books that have mattered to us over the years, in assemblies, with our classes and when signing off emails. A life-long love of reading seems to me one of the most powerful and beneficial legacies to pass on to the next generation. I still have the battered, dog-eared copies of the books that I was given one year, by a friend of the family who took an interest in my reading habits and sought to extend my range. I know what an impact that had on me, so no doubt to the disappointment of my younger relatives, I shall remain a shameless giver of books this Christmas.
Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh