In education today there are few topics that receive the unanimous support of all educators like the value conferred upon literacy and particularly the importance of reading. The evidence regarding how literacy can impact upon life chances is incontrovertible and the ‘riches’ provided by reading are very real: literally, in terms of average wages and career success; as well as emotionally, spiritually and cognitively. The inspirational trigger for my writing this blog post about the power of reading was this article here in the Telegraph about how reading great literature can spark the brain neurologically and have lasting physiological and psychological benefits.
When contemplating the nourishing benefits of reading I am saddened by evidence provided by the excellent National Literacy Trust that indicates that reading for pleasure appears to be in perennial decline. Evidence from the National Literacy Trust states that at the end of 2011 that only three young people in ten now read daily in their own time, down from five out of ten in 2005. Every Parents’ evening, particularly for our younger students, I explain the importance of reading for pleasure – how it has a tremendous impact upon school success, as well as its legion of unmeasurable benefits of course. I think the sourcing of accurate evidence to support this would be impossible to compile, but I am of the firm belief that those students who read for pleasure regularly over the period of their school life almost always excel compared to their non-reading peers. The very act of reading shows a habit of mind that is conducive to the concentration levels required of challenging work. Also, regular reading is often a sound indicator of those many nourishing home-life conditions, established from a young age, that are so crucial for success in later life.
As an English teacher, the potent power of reading great literature is something I have felt in a very real way and it shapes who I am. I can provide a series of accounts of how literature nourished and sustained me and how this same spark has been ignited in others. In my darker days as a truculent teen, I embarked upon a personal reading binge, which unknown to me then was something of a self-help course – my own pseudo-freudian self-analysis! The poetry and novels I read were directly an attempt at understanding myself and the turbulent maelstrom of teenage thoughts and feelings I was subject to at the time. In the characters of Holden Caulfield (‘The Catcher in the Rye’), Paul Morel (‘Sons and Lovers’) and Nick Carraway (‘The Great Gatsby’) I found kindred spirits – friends of a unique sort – that bolstered my confidence and sense of self, as good friends do. I have always been fascinated by that near-ineffable feeling of reaching though the page and through time to warmly greet such characters. The feeling articulated so precisely and plaintively by the teacher, Hector, in Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”.
This moment described by Hector captures perfectly that potent “lighting up” of the brain, as described by the Scientists undertaking their study into the neurological effects of reading. Of course, this account of reading from Alan Bennett also describes the acute emotional benefits of reading – arguably the greatest gift conferred upon us from this simple act.
When I went to University, I was lucky enough to be tutored by the same Prof Phillip Davis who is the expert in the aforementioned Telegraph article. Seldom in my life have I come across a person so wise and so passionate about his vocation – and it was this very passion, regarding the nourishing power of reading, that gave me the conviction that I should pursue a career that promoted reading over other professional options, such as the sterile vacuum of a Human Resources department in some business or other. As proved by his scientific pursuit of answers, Dr Davis wanted to capture the ineffable power of reading; define why great literature, the type of literature that is challenging on a host of intellectual levels, could provide greater personal ballast than any shelf of trite self-help books ever could. The neurological evidence is that the brain indeed lights up when faced with such literature (challenging and difficult literature in the very best way) – such evidence that would feel like wholly predictable common sense to those, like me, who revel in that uplifting ‘spark’ of reading.
It made me remember two pivotal reading experiences in my life – two that have shaped so much of my intellectual and emotional life. Sparks that lit a flame. I assume there were many vague memories from earliest childhood that were the true foundations for my love of reading, likely involving my mother reading books, or reading newspapers with my father. Yet, these two later reading experiences crystallise for me the transformative power of reading.
My first experience that directly related to the research in the Telegraph article – it was in the seminar room of Dr Davis himself, reading T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. I had always disliked Eliot’s poetry – backed by my favourite poet, Phillip Larkin – and had always thought his poetry elitist and obscure. This experience was guided by Dr Davis, who explained and helped illuminate the liturgical language, as we explored with laser-like precision the complex weaving of the language. It was the crucial ‘fascination of what’s difficult‘, to quote Yeats, that finally struck me quite profoundly. My brain, challenged by the obscurity of the language, was sparking new neural pathways – it illuminated new understanding that I felt in a very palpable way. Without wishing to sound like I had a ‘road to Damascus’ style conversion, of course I had loved challenging literature for some years, but the challenge of reading ‘The Four Quartets’, and the rich rewards I felt vert directly did indeed feel irrevocably different. I felt that I would want to guide others through similar challenges to the attendant rewards. When I now read the following words by Dr Davis from the article I see them as a rallying call for the reading of truly great literature:
“This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.” Professor Phillip Davis
The second experience helped changed my life and helped me find my vocation. It was one of those moments, too easily derided as corny and trite, when knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was leaving university and I had travailed the usual path of work experience in a Primary school and a Secondary school. I then had the opportunity to spend a fascinating week in a Special school in Liverpool. On the first day I had helped the shearing of sheep (I have not done that since!) – a real education indeed! On the second day a young boy was having an initial three day taster of the school. He had a significant series of special needs. His reading level was that of a an infant boy, far below his chronological age. We tackled one of those generic, basic reading books – about a boy leaving home to begin his life as an adult. The young lad really struggled to comprehend the reasoning for leaving home, nor could he fully grasp all the vocabulary, but, with lots of step by step scaffolding he got to the end of the book in little over half an hour. He was in raptures because he had finished the book and I was moved in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
The next day the young boy’s mother explained how delighted she was, after the first day, and how much her young boy had loved the reading time. I could hardly express how inwardly delighted I was. When I reflect now that process described in the Telegraph article as the “lighting up” of the brain was the same difficult reading experience the young boy and myself both experienced in our fashion – at very different times in our lives, with very different, but with equally challenging literature.
Triggered by these memories, I quickly activate my own “reappraisal mechanism”, as explained in the article, and remember that my job as a teacher is not just to tick a box labelled Literacy for OFSTED or just help students jump through ill-fitting examination hoops, but to help kindle a spark for reading. The rest will take care of itself. The next time I find a student questioning why we read Shakespeare I may well pull out a sparkler!
In the aforementioned ‘History Boys’, Hector implores the boys to “pass it on”. What is being passed on is a passion for knowledge and primarily a love of great literature. I hope that I may also have the continued gift of passing on that mighty spark for reading great literature.