This Easter holiday season, many children will have been set, from their schools, books to read. To see a child curled up with a book gives a certain feel-good vibe in a world dominated by electronic gadgetry. Books give a sense of worthiness and substance. What’s not to love? Well actually, quite a lot.
Children, in the main, no longer construct a sense of themselves through literature. What they are often denied in this busy, wired world is the journey into deep reading — into the deep inner silence experienced when lost in the pages of a book.
The world is full of noise and a child’s world especially so. Over a long career in the classroom, I have heard it said that a noisy classroom is a busy classroom. This can be true. But where do children get the silence to read?
There are many factors at play. School libraries actually work against deep reading and as for local libraries, forget it. A noisy library is not a reading library.
Let there be no mistake, books are a consumable and they still have clout. They are big sellers, and they are a currency of social discourse. Literary festivals are booming around the country and writers are celebrities. Just ask Richard Flanagan.
But while books are the perfect fashion accessory, the significance of deep reading has been lost. This is the inner journey a reader takes and which in turn shapes a sense of themselves. Schools these days fail to design curriculums in which there is an overview of how some literature will actually develop a child’s sense of self. The idea is that if they are reading, anything, then that has to be a good thing. Wrong.
Sarah Maitland, in her 2008 memoir, The Book of Silence, made this observation as she ensconced herself in remote Scotland: “I learned to read more silently, but also I read with a sense of the mystery of what reading is and how deeply and silently it has shaped our sense of self.”
Meanwhile, Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies, noted in 1994: “As the world hurtles on towards its mysterious rendezvous, the old act of slowly reading a serious book becomes an elegiac exercise. As we ponder that act, profound questions must arise about our avowedly humanistic values, about spiritual values versus material concerns, about subjectivity itself.”
Whereas Harold Bloom, in his 2000l bestseller, How We Read and Why, observed: “Reading is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness.”
This is what many children are denied through ill-considered curriculum and library selections, which often pander to populism. It is legitimised by the incorrect opinion that children learn in different ways today and therefore explorative, individualised, child-centred learning is the way to go. Superficiality wins. The cost is deep reading.
A cursory glance at recent bestsellers is revealing. The top seller was the frothy children’s story The 52-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton. These two savvy authors have what amounts to a franchise on children’s books. The kids love them. Librarians love them. Parents love them and teachers love them. This book and many of the other top reads for children and teenagers for 2014 teach children nothing about deep reading. This is Literature Lite. Fun but literary fairy floss.
What needs to be understood, and I write as someone who makes their living out of literature, is that what children read matters. By offering lightweight literature, we are not showing much awareness of the how the brain grows in young people.
Francis Spufford, in his important 2002 study, The Child that Books Built, says: “We can remember readings that acted like transformations. There were times when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed. Suddenly a thousand crystals of perception of our own formed, the original insight of the story ordering whole arrays of discoveries inside us, into winking accuracy.”
This is deep reading. What is being denied children by not providing the opportunities and the books to enable this process is a reduction in the potential to construct a sense of identity through literature and also to expand brain function.
New Scientist magazine in October 2013 noted that in a US study it was found that literary fiction enhances our ability to empathise with others. This ability to detect and understand others’ emotions and to infer their beliefs and intentions is called “theory of the mind”.
The study, by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School of Social Research in New York, tested whether this is boosted by exposure to literary fiction — stories with more complex characters.
In the study one group was asked to read literary fiction, one group popular fiction and another was not asked to read anything. The three groups were then asked to identify facial emotions, a standard test for empathy. The results were revealing.
Those who had read the literary fiction showed a heightened ability to empathise compared with other groups.
What has not been grasped in the pursuit of better literacy figures, at home and in international tests, is that reading inferior literature does not enhance brain development. This has vital significance for education and specifically how reading is taught.
The Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London has been undertaking research into cognitive processes that, as The Times Educational Supplement reported in May last year, “may be particularly malleable to certain types of learning experience during adolescence”.
According to the UCL research, the part of the brain showing the most prolonged development is the prefrontal cortex. Now here’s the interesting part regarding brain function and the importance of children being stretched and deepened with their reading.
“This region,” TES reported, lending weight to the New Scientist report, “forms part of the brain’s social network, a system that is involved in understanding other people in terms of their behaviour, thoughts and emotions.”
As was reported in The Australian earlier this year, many primary school teachers enter the classroom without knowing how to teach reading. They have little grasp, if any, of the primacy of phonics in the way children learn to read.
Australia is slipping behind in reading ability as evidenced in the Program for International Assessment tests. Australia sits in 10th place. The persistent variance in NAPLAN scores for reading across states and territories is a cause for ongoing unease. Why is this occurring?
This is the reason behind advocacy by Education Minister Christopher Pyne and Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson for the national uptake of Direct Instruction. It makes palpable sense. Before deep reading can be experienced, children need to be good readers.
The ramifications for children not knowing how to read, and teachers not understanding the importance of deep reading, are declining literacy standards.
John Dale, an academic in the creative writing program at University of Technology, Sydney, wrote of his dismay at the lack of substantial reading by students in his courses. In The Australian’s Higher Education section in June last year, he said: “In March this year, I surveyed 128 creative writing students undertaking their first-year writing major at university as part of a teaching and learning evaluation to find out how many Miles Franklin winners they had read or even heard of.
“I chose 12 years from 2001 to 2012 from which 19 creative writing students had read one Miles Franklin-winning book; nine had read two books, and 98 students out of 128 — a staggering 76 per cent — had not read any of the 12 novels.”
The place of quality literature over superficial popular reads is not just a pressing educational concern but an industry concern. The December/January issue of the Australian Author journal carried an article, Junk Food for Brains, which asks the important question: are children being given the kinds of books that make for future serious readers?
Referring to a University of Sheffield study, the report concludes: “Access to good-quality books, both children’s literature and reference material, is essential if children are to build a good foundation of reading in early years.”
Deep reading done in silence is something a generation ago we took for granted. In the noise of contemporary schooling, it is not just the ability to read that is lost but the way books shape us, or as Harold Bloom says, “Ultimately, we read — as (Francis) Bacon, (Samuel) Johnson and (Ralph Waldo) Emerson agree — in order to strengthen the self.” Many children in Australia are not shown how or can’t find the way to achieve this. In that, we all lose.
Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer, a senior literature teacher at a Melbourne boys Anglican grammar school.