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My Kids Don't 'Read'

We thought we were nailing it. But now my daughters (aged 18 and 19) don't read novels. We started them young. In fact, their Dad read Bridie (the elder child) Jonathon Livingston Seagull before she was even born. He read to her so much that she followed him with her eyes from the moment she was born - literally. We read to both girls from the time they were newborn right through until it naturally petered out when they could read decent stories for themselves. When they were old enough, we had an awesome time getting them their first library cards and then taking fortnightly trips to Rotorua Public Library with great big plastic buckets which they would fill with their maximum 40 books. The children's librarian at the time was brilliant! So full of joy! She seemed to know everything there was to know about children's books and would make recommendations to them with such conviction that this would be their next favourite that I felt as though we would all die happy. I remembered my old primary teacher reading Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree to our class after lunch each day. Together, the girls and I chowed down on the series. We even painted the magic faraway tree on a loooooong roll of brown paper, then drew all the people who lived in it - Saucepan Man, Silky and Moonface. I can't remember now what land we put at the top, but I'm betting chocolate was there. Ella is an amazing artist, so it was totally her thing!

We find a plot - the burial kind

And then we, unknowingly, began to prepare for the death of the novel and the girls' ability to sink into zen. When the girls were around 8 and 9 we moved to Abu Dhabi. Pretty hard to find a library there (at least back then) unless it was one thrown together by ex-pats at the local yacht club or the [insert a country here] club. The Quran is the only book, so naturally libraries aren't in high demand for the local community. No worries, kids, you're in luck! We'll go to bookshops and buy them! You get to keep them - everybody say aaaaaahhhhh! We were stuck inside a fair bit - AD being a bit hot and all - so we thought we'd get through piles of books! But the bookshops were fairly hard to find, and required a car trip that seemed really long to kids who were used to traveling ten minutes down the road for everything. And when we got there, there wasn't a lot to choose from for their age group ... and besides, our favourite librarian wasn't there with her Magical Guided Tour...

We dig a hole

Next we dug a hole in our newly found plot. A fellow ex-pat who'd been living in the Middle East for a few years said - and the girls heard - "You'll find your kids spend more time on electronics than you'd ever let them spend in New Zealand because they end up running out of things to do inside". But it wasn't just the girls who were influenced - it was us! We eventually bought them Nintendo DSIs (which Ella claims, ten years on, are "Gangsta! Still use it!" Cool.) Then there was the Wii. To be fair, we did get it for the exercise. When it was 50 degrees outside, the girls could still play tennis, volleyball, whatever in the comfort of the air-conditioned lounge. But it took them five minutes to work out that actually, if you sat on the couch and just waved your arms around, the Wii thought you were up out of your chair and working up a sweat. I was about to type, slowly but surely, the books took the back shelf, but it was pretty much overnight. But there was always bedtime reading right? Here was our spiel, "Okay girls, lights out! ... but we'll let you stay up another half an hour if you want to read your latest, cool, exciting book - whoop whoop!" To which Bridie would reply, "No way, I'd rather sleep." (From the kid that hated sleep.) And Ella would do as big sister did. Cry.

We lower the novel and zen into the hole

We returned to New Zealand. We brought with us our burial plot though ... into which we, from here, absolutely shoved novel-reading ... and my girls' ability to achieve a bit of zen. I tried - "Cool! Let's go to the library girls! New town. New library! Let's check it oooouuuut! Yee hah!" But I was met with funereal wails. "Do we haaaaave tooooo?" Cry. Technology! They like technology. We'll head them off at the pass and get them Kindles! Winner-winner! Did they use them...? I can't remember ... so, not enough to remember then! They had plenty to do with sports and arts and things. Bridie in particular seemed to love non-fiction books. I began to buy Knowledge Magazine. That, to be fair, was a hit - all-be-it on and off - for a few years. There was a huge moment of hope when, to suss out a novel study for my Year 10s, I read John Marsden's Letters From the Inside and immediately afterwards we went on a camper-van trip ... with no power sockets. I added it to our book pile and the girls really got into it. We talked about that book the whole week - what part each of us was up to, 'I can't wait until you get to the next bit where...', and OMG the ending! But then we got home - not just to power sockets, but to busy lives.

If the Nintendo DSI was the equivalent of digging a burial hole, then the Grim Reaper arrived to seal the deal with two Apple iPods in his tool-belt. Not gonna lie (!) their Dad and I thought they were pretty cool too. And we were proud that the girls worked and saved for them. We were a family who loved listening to music, and these gave the girls an awesome source of their own sounds. Yep...

So you know what comes next right? We don't even need a Jaws soundtrack to introduce this. The iPhone. Didn't mention reading in the last paragraph did I? Not gonna mention it here either! And so the hole is filled in.

Critical Mass

Meantime, back in, reading heaven, my sister-in-law, Julie, and her three girls (who are around the same age as my girls), were reading more than ever. What did I do wrong? When I compare us with them, here's what I think...

I stopped reading the same thing as my girls when I stopped reading to them at bedtime. They would have been about six. I was rapt that they could read for themselves. I could get to my glass of wine a whole lot sooner and pat myself on the back that I'd done such a great job because the kids were reading well.

But that meant I didn't know the story too, so we couldn't talk about it and ooooh and aaaah over it. Sure, being an English teacher I did some things right like:

  • asking them what they thought would happen next,

  • asking them if they'd like to be in a certain character's shoes;

  • asking them if they think they'll read the next book in the series...

But I couldn't empathise with their reading experience. I couldn't argue with them about the decision that a character made. I just wasn't 'into it'. I was reading my book, and I would tell them about what I was reading too, but it wasn't something we were all doing together any more. Whereas my sister-in-law read Harry Potter etc at the same time as her daughters so reading was something that - I'm guessing it seemed to the girls - society does! In my house, Mum was doing this, we were doing that. Our books became separate interests. If you lose the family's critical mass by reading different things, then the mass becomes a trickle that is too easily diverted down to the apple iPhone orchard where the pickings are engaging and addictive! That's why the girls got so excited about reading Letters From the Inside on that camper-van trip. Not because they had no technology, but because I'd read the book too, not a week beforehand, and we could really bury ourselves in the excitement of it all - the wave, the critical mass of reading joy was key.

So, I wonder if the trick to keeping children and teens reading isn't a case of reading the same stories as them the whole way through. So when they don't need you to read to them any more, and they pick up Geronimo Stilton and The Wizard's Dog, parents should read that book too. (Obviously one after the other unless you have two copies.) And when you're in the car, listen to an audio book together. Keep the critical reading mass together and rolling!

Does it really matter anyway?

In my rare calm, rational moments (!), I have to admit that just because my girls aren't reading novels - prose (or poetry for that matter):

  1. They still read a lot through their school/university work;

  2. They certainly play with language a lot through slang, teen idioms, captioning on their social media;

  3. While I may have read book after book (go Jean Plaidy!) as a teenager, I wasn't doing a lot of things that they are, like making videos. And I wasn't reading the same things they are, like social media posts and websites. So they're still reading.

So what's been bugging me?

Zen: it'll be back

Zen is bugging me. The key things that really get on my goat about my girls not reading - novels that is - are that:

  1. I think we're missing out because we're not talking about what we're reading, excited about trips to the library or books on our e-readers, about new books out, new authors... And I think that'd be cool fun. A chill, fun, common ground.

  2. They're not getting the pleasure of truly relaxing, of turning the 'crazy' off, of getting their 'me' time. They've lost their zen! I want them to be zen!

But you know what? It'll be back, when they're ready. Because zen is a 'need', not a 'want' like technology's enticing forbidden fruit is. And when they need it, they will pick up a novel. And they'll do it because we showed them that they're there. And that's what every good parent and teacher does - we show them where stuff is and how to get to it so that when they need it, they can grab it. Now, go read your kids' book!


If you're struggling with where to begin with the active teaching of any kind of written text, then check out the Literacy Lifesaver. This was written after much research and discussion with primary and intermediate teachers in particular (despite the fact I'm a high school English teacher). I felt that I wasn't teaching literacy as such and needed a go to tool. This has been a Godsend when planning units, but also for approaching one-off texts for things like the Unfamiliar Texts assessment.

One of my favourite tasks is the Responses to Independent reading one where students write their thoughts about their own reading. I love the freedom of it, but that's what seems to freak the students out most (apart from the idea of reading two long texts - lol). See our tasks below - scaffolded so they don't freak out!

NCEA Level 1 (year 11) - So I Reckon

NCEA Level 2 (year 12) - Stalk and Talk

Stalk and Talk - a generic task to be used at any high school - that is, without the links to NZ's NCEA system.

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