Ask A Librarian – “Help, I’m not that good at reading!”

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Over the years a lot of parents have come to me to quietly ask how they can help their child with reading when their own reading is “not good enough.”

First, let’s start by taking a little time to put that into perspective. I’m not going to bore you with depressing (and suspicious) national statistics, we’ll just have a little positive thinking instead. A lot of adults lack self-esteem in their reading due to poor or incomplete schooling in their own childhood, or lack of higher level development in their adult reading – they simply don’t do it much and so haven’t improved. Lacking self-esteem means that people see themselves as worse readers than they actually are. That is a shame, but it certainly does not mean that you lack the skills to support your child’s reading. Every parent that I’ve worked with in this situation has turned out to be a far better reader than they thought they were – they just lacked self-esteem and practice.
As an experiment I once took a group of struggling teen readers and we used school assessment guidelines to assess the reading levels of various pieces of common adult reading materials – Nuts, Loaded, Hello, OK and the red top newspapers, the kind of thing most often found in their homes. They were surprised to discover that these averaged out at a level 5 – which would be the level expected from a bright ten year old. So it’s not surprising that adults are not finding that their reading ability is improving in adulthood – the material they are reading is not going to help.
But, that’s still ok (no pun intended) you don’t have to be reading War and Peace to help your child with their reading, and you certainly don’t need to be forking out large sums of cash to buy into expensive schemes. Put the self-doubt to one side, you are the perfect person to help your child with their reading because you have the one thing that a scheme or reading package doesn’t – you have their love. Your child loves you and that means that they want to please you and make you proud. At that all important pre-reading stage they will listen to you and that is when you can get books into their lives – before they are reading at all.

Start off by setting the scene – have books in your house so that you can build a reading and booky atmosphere and environment. You can get books cheaply from charity shops and boot sales, and a library ticket is free! You can sign a tiny baby up to the library and borrow books so that they can develop their sight by looking at bright colours and wonderful images in picture books before they even know what words are. The very first step towards your child enjoying reading is to make sure that they see books around the home all the time.

Next, learn with them! If you are really not sure about how they are learning to read at school, be honest and make an appointment with the teacher to chat about it. I have never met a teacher who would not be understanding and helpful to you with this. They too want what’s best for your child’s development and they will help you to help them. They can show you how reading is handled in the school and can give you strategies to support and encourage your child.

Then, enjoy it. We are lucky enough to be living in a golden age of children’s literature. I have worked with children’s books for over a quarter of a century and I have never seen finer books than those being published today. Some people keep harking back to children’s books that were published a century ago but these (though undeniably great) will not interest a modern child. Their world is completely different to those books and reading for pleasure at a young age hinges on the ability to identify with the characters and the story. Books written today will speak to your child in a language that they understand. It doesn’t matter that your child has not read some heap of antiquated classics, maybe they will later, maybe not. In my experience most of the adults who claim to have read the classics have actually seen the movie!

Modern children’s and young adult fiction is stunningly good and varied. I haven’t read a so-called “grown up” book in ages as most of my reading material is for younger readers – and it is superb! High quality books for young readers are published all the time and some of the best writing around is to be found in books for children and young adults. Seriously, read it yourself and share the experience with your children, you won’t regret it! Challenging, thrilling, beautifully written and rewarding books fill the shelves in every bookshop and library. This means it can be a bit of a minefield choosing, so ask the librarian which books are the ones most enjoyed by readers.

Don’t rule out series books, and certainly don’t allow snobbery to creep into your choices. Boys particularly love series books, and there are some that could hook your child for a very long period of time as they wait for the next one along, and devour a huge string of stories. This is all about reading for pleasure, forming a reading habit, and it should be fun. Your child should be allowed to pick up a book that catches their eye and give it a go. It might be something you don’t like… tough!

Most of all the best thing you can do as a parent is to help your child see reading as a pleasurable and everyday activity. It’s not homework, it’s not a lesson, it’s simply something that always happens in your home. If books sit at ease in your family, then reading will become a natural part of your child’s life and a habit they carry with them always.

You do not need to be a “good” reader to support this at home, but you do need to be a book lover – and the two are not the same!

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If you are genuinely concerned about your own literacy levels, or those of someone you know, there are many courses that will support you and help adults in this situation. You are not alone and it is important to remember that. You can find out more information about adult literacy courses by using this link to the National Literacy Trust website or call the Gov.uk courses guide free on 0800 66 0800 .

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Ask a librarian.

As a children’s librarian I have been asked a lot of the same questions over the last decade. I know that parents often have similar concerns about their child’s reading, and so I thought I would share some of those questions with you, and my answers.

I hope you find them helpful.

I have a child in infant school and they don’t seem to be reading as well as the other children, what can I do? Some of the other children are on much higher books, why is my child not the same?

This needs a longer answer, but I’ve already covered in a longer post, and I’ve covered a lot of the issues that cause stress in parents about their child’s reading. Relax, it’ll be fine, they are all different and taking the pressure off is the first step to reading enjoyment.

 My daughter is seven and has read the first two of the Harry Potter books, but I think the next ones will start to get too scary for her. I don’t want to stop her reading or censor the books, but she’s only seven and easily scared!

People tend to forget that just because small people can read a book, it doesn’t mean they are emotionally ready for the content. After all, I’m sure your eight year old boy is more than linguistically capable of tackling all of the words printed in Nuts and Loaded magazines, but would you give him a copy?

The Harry Potter books are a good example of this desire to push books to bright readers too early (not that I’m comparing Harry to Loaded!) Remember that Harry is eleven in the first book, and so his life experience is based around the life of an eleven year old (albeit an extraordinary one!) Some seven and eight year olds are absolutely fine with a story that features an abused orphan who is locked in a cupboard and not allowed to deal with the death of his parents, but many are not. Children are often fine with scary magical elements, but it is the emotional content that may disturb and upset some young children.

You know if your child is emotionally ready for certain books or not, just don’t ever make the mistake of choosing books for much older children simply because you have a bright reader. Take advice, ask a librarian (ask me!), ask a good bookseller (not one that just wants to sell you the latest bestseller.) This is not about censorship, it is about guidance. If in doubt, read it yourself and ask yourself if your child is ready for this material. If your child is too young to emotionally deal with certain material, or too young to bond with the characters in the book, then you will only succeed in putting them off. Save these books for when they are ready to really enjoy them, and are able to fully appreciate the complexities of the plots. Don’t give in to parental snobbery or pushiness (“my daughter is only eight and has already read Twilight/Hunger Games/War and Peace…”) Go with what you know about your child, and be honest about what might upset them and what they might not be emotionally ready for. There is a vast amount of material to choose from, you just might need a bit of assistance to navigate the choice. Take them to a good library and a good bookshop and you’ll find all the help you need. Encourage them to read what they will enjoy, not what they feel under pressure to say they have read.

 The only thing my boy wants to read is comics and comic books, how can I stop him?

Why would you want to?

I almost left that answer there, but I do need to make a bit of an effort to convince you all!

Comics are AMAZING!! Don’t stop your child from reading anything, and don’t be critical unless you have dipped your toe in the water yourself. I grew up on comics and progressed to graphic novels and I’m still hooked. Reading is reading, and comics are a fantastic way for children to contextualise higher level vocabulary using visual prompts.

And they’re cool.

My child’s school doesn’t have a school librarian, does it matter?

Yes. 

OK, so I should say more than that – but it seems glaringly obvious that your child deserves the very best for their education, and you have every right to expect your school to provide that. A good school employs staff members who are qualified for the job. A school librarian has a very specific skill-set that goes far beyond handing out a book. They are supportive of your child’s reading and involved in their progression. They provide the expert advice and support that you and your child require for them to progress with their literacy, and engage in books and reading.  A librarian should be there to ensure that reading is a pleasure, a lifelong habit, and this in itself will have a massive positive effect on your child’s life.

Why would you not want this for your child?

Good literacy will vastly improve your child’s life and their opportunities in the future. Quite simply, they will be smarter if they read more. Fact.

If your child’s school does not have a library and a librarian, ask why.

This leaflet will give you all the reasons why your child deserves this, and what to look for in prospective schools.

 Ok, that’s it for now – more soon!

If you are not lucky enough to have a school librarian, you can always ask me a question.