A Novel Approach To Reading


Contains more than recipes. Art, geography, history, photography, folklore and classical culture are all covered.

Since acquiring an eReader last year, my reading habits seem to be developing into a new pattern, whereby I tend to download and read novels from the screen, but continue to buy non-fiction titles, graphic novels and – an increasing obsession – cookery books, in paper format. I suppose the most obvious reason is the tactile quality of many of these latter texts – I’m thinking of titles like Shaun Tan’s The Arrivals or Chris Ware’s Building Stories which is literally a book in three dimensions – but there is often, too, something about the physical weight or heft of a book in your hand which, in the case of many cookery books for example, suggests bounty or treasure – you feel as if you are getting something for your money. These are the texts for which the word ‘book’ now seems a bit inadequate, for often they are indeed artefacts or works of art.

However, sticking with novels for the moment, once you have become a fiction addict you are always on the lookout for that next fix, and I recently enjoyed a great novel called Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain. As it happens I was on Twitter when I spotted this tweet from Jamie Byng of Canongate, who published the book, and was intrigued enough to favourite it for later reference. A quick look at the reviews on Amazon confirmed that it was  ‘my kind of book’, so I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and was reading it within minutes. How the magic of technology has improved and enhanced our reading habits in recent years, particularly that facility to read a sample before we decide whether we want to read the whole text or not.

None of that would have happened though, I guess, if I wasn’t already a reader. How I  became a regular reader is a long story – much longer than any novel – which started way back in primary school, when the Friday afternoon ‘treat’ of silent reading wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but suited me just fine, thank you very much. The generous class library, which comprised most of Enid Blyton’s prodigious output, Just William in every imaginable situation, a smattering of Jennings and Derbyshire and W.E. John’s handlebar-moustached hero Captain Biggles, held a seductive enough range of material with which to escape the classroom for a couple of otherwise dreary hours. For a boy growing up in a semi-rural working-class West of Scotland community, the main attraction of the stories was the excitement of exploring other worlds, a virtual travel agency if you like, which is exactly what reading does.

Just William

Just William

It is through reading, and especially through fiction, that we are able to journey, for a while, alongside people who are not like us.

You can perhaps understand then why my heart sinks every time I hear teachers discussing which novel (often  singular) they will be ‘teaching’ students this year. I don’t blame them (I was that teacher once), but the exam-driven system which has brought them to this state of affairs. I too spent many hours in the classroom – this time as a teacher – pulling apart some  great novels to look at how you might squeeze them into the straitjacket of a particular essay question. It was a system designed for a minority of students who would study literature at university, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine an education system where young people read an increasing number of books year on year, and keep on doing so long after they leave school, rather than, in many cases, abandoning the practice as soon as they are no longer ‘made to read’. Imagine if the culmination of your efforts as a teacher, and the measure of your success was not exam results but the number of lifelong readers you had helped to create. Imagine, if in their final year, the task you set the class was not to write a ‘critical essay’, which in all likelihood most of them will never have to do again, but to complete a group investigation something like the one below. Imagine the opportunities that would present, the reading that could be done, the fun you could have together, and the gift you could pass on to future generations.

Final Year Reading Task

What is the origin of the novel as a storytelling form, and why does it remain popular today?

What novels would you say every young person should read?

What features would you say are common to all the novels you (as a group) have read?

What distinguishes a successful novel from an unsuccessful novel, and is ‘successful’ the same as good?

Why should we read novels written in previous centuries?

Further Reading:

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Study: Reading Novels Makes Us Better Thinkers

Related Posts:

Sticking to the Plot

Lighting a Spark for Reading

Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

The Power of Fiction and the Storytelling Animal

Reading by Numbers

6 thoughts on “A Novel Approach To Reading

  1. Totally agree with everything you say, Bill, and would add that it isn’t only the exam system which restricts reading in schools. Another factor is budgets; the dreaded ‘departmental set’ in the book store. Wouldn’t it be great if enlightened publishers offered free downloads to schools so that teachers could offer pupils an infinite range of choices on e-readers? Surely it would pay off economically in the long run, as well as educationally of course.

    • Good point Gordon, though the departmental set in the book store can just as often be the result of poor policy decisions as restricted budgets. One of my favourite activities as a head of department was to go through the book stores and assign depleted sets to class libraries or to the dustbin.

  2. I have been using a variation of this idea for years now as a high school English teacher in Ontario. 15 — 20 minutes of “free” reading at the beginning of most classes. The only criteria are that the book comes from our school library (we have one with an excellent selection of reading material at all levels) that the student comments briefly, in writing, on the book when they have finished it (this is checked by my, but not marked) and that one book be non-fiction. In grades 9 and 10, we keep a running tabulation of books read by each student and there is a year end prize for most books read. Senior grades are free to use the time to keep up with ISU reading (anxiety reduction for slower readers) or to explore the libraries resources at will.

    Contrary to the currently popular ideology that says students are reluctant readers, I have never had any difficulty selling this idea to the students (boys included)– the key is to match the student to their current reading ability (whatever that may be, and regardless of grade level) and interest. Again, our librarian has been key to our success, as she is quite skilled at matching reader to book and we have built a good selection of high-interest, low-vocabulary books.

    The first 15 minutes of class are the most congenially quiet and most focused of the entire 75 minute period. Rather than complaints or resistance, comments from students tend to be things like, “Reading better not be cancelled; it’s my favourite part of the day,” or “It’s Friday. Can we just read all period?” Further advantage: at the end of the 15 minutes, students are calm, focused and “language ready.” Also, once established, many never lose their reading habit.

    • Thanks for taking the trouble Kerry – your comment speaks for itself so needs nothing further from me, except to say that your observation about the school library/librarian is just so true. Keep up the good work! Bill

  3. Re the stock/funding issues, there are ways round this. When I was a school librarian I bought sets of books for our S1/2 book club and they worked on a 2-year cycle basis. I let English teachers borrow sets as group reads in class in the year we weren’t using them with the book club. As a teacher, I’ve stocked my class library with decent reads and ditched the old yellowed library cast offs. I’ve realised a class library isn’t competing with the school library but gives pupils instant access to books when visiting the library’s not an option. I’ve bought a class set of novels for S1/2 for 49p a copy and some of the World Book Day novellas bought for 50p a copy make quick class reads when time wise, studying another novel wouldn’t work. Plus, as a part time teacher, try teaching a full novel in a period a week.

    If blog readers don’t know about it, check out the Kid’s Lit Quiz reading competition. The Scottish heats for this year have just taken place, but it is an amazing international reading quiz for S1 age. Called ‘the world cup for readers’ heats now take place in 12 countries. The atmosphere at heats has to be felt to be believed, but teams of pupils competing to show they have the best reading knowledge whilst representing their schools is something to be celebrated.

    • Hey, thanks for the tips. I agree it’s important that the books in the class library should be attractive and in very good condition, otherwise you are just as likely to put kids off reading. Hadn’t heard of the Kid’s Lit Quiz before, and it’s a pity that Scottish teachers have missed it for this year, but I’ve put a link below for anyone who wants to take a note of it for next time.


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