There’s nothing quite like getting lost in a good book. It’s one of the simplest, most rewarding pastimes, but studies show that fewer and fewer of us are reading – and teenagers in particular, with their heads buried in screens, not books, seem to have fallen out of love with reading; barely half of 11-15-year-olds in England read for fun.
In BBC2’s The School that Got Teens Reading comedian Javone Prince travels to the high-performing Ripley St Thomas Church of England Academy in Lancaster. It’s one of the top comprehensive schools in the country, where they’ve tried everything to encourage their students to read more – but nothing seems to be working.
Armed with Sarah Crossan’s Carnegie Medal-winning novel One, Prince spends three weeks with a group of 15 fiercely resistant Year Ten students (aged 14–15), who haven’t read a book for fun in over a year. His mission is to inspire them to get lost in a good read.
Prince didn’t get into reading until he was in his 20s, but ever since he’s been making up for lost time. “At their age, I really struggled with reading,” he says, “but I want to show these kids how to love books like I do now.”
Presenter (and fellow bookworm) Helen Skelton joins him in Lancaster, and thinks the major obstacles are screens. “Where people would have had a book in their hand a few years ago, now there are so many things you can do easily on your phone – it’s so easy to get drawn into Instagram, Facebook, Twitter – and that’s a challenge for everybody, not just kids.”
After three weeks of hard work – and diverse, creative approaches – the results from the kids prove varied, but almost every child declares their minds, and eyes, newly opened to the benefits of books.
So what are the secrets to persuading young people of the joys of books? Prince and Skelton reveal all…
Javone’s secrets to get them started
Think outside the box
“Try audio novels as a way in — they’re still hearing the words and engaging with the story, but they’re not necessarily ‘reading’ them. Also, look out for books online, and books on tablets and Kindles.”
Find a way to get them hooked
“Give them a brief of what the book is, don’t tell them that it’s a book, just tell the story really well, then when they’re hooked, tell them it’s a novel and to read it. It’s as simple as that — just say, ‘Can you imagine that?’ and really discuss it in depth. If you love it, be enthusiastic and passionate about it — they’ll be interested.”
Don’t force it
“Don’t shove things in young people’s faces, because they will reject them. Don’t dictate and make reading into a chore because then they won’t want to do it. It’s important to listen to them — you might find out what they do want to read. And don’t be defensive — when they resist, assess what they’re saying and then try a different tack.”
Helen’s tips to keep them hooked
Find a book that suits the child
“The best thing is finding a child books that are specific to them. In my experience, choosing books that appeal to their passions, or that are about things they’re dealing with and are relevant to them, can make a difference. One book doesn’t work for everyone.”
Set a good example
“A couple of kids said, ‘My parents don’t see the point so why should I see the point?’ But even independent 15-year-olds still form their opinions based on the behaviour of people around them. Having books at home is good — if your kids don’t see you reading, they won’t think it’s a normal, valuable thing to do with your time.”
Separate “reading” from “school”
“Encourage the idea that reading is different from studying, and is about enjoyment. The idea that we read to find things out and that eventually you know everything you need to know — well, do you approach life with your heart and soul, or your head? It’s not about ticking a box, it’s lifelong human learning, and empathy.”