Top tips for keeping children reading in secondary school
Published on: 03 September 2023 Author: Gabriel Dylan
Author and English teacher Gabriel Dylan shares his top tips on getting – and keeping – children reading as they start secondary school.
That was the name of the book that made me fall in love with reading. I was at primary school on the day I stumbled across it, in Year 5 or Year 6. Like a lot of schools at that time, there was no library. Instead, we had a reading corner, with comfortable chairs and cushions, and several shelves crammed with well-thumbed books.
The day I found Creepies I'd been sent to the reading corner to try and find something to read for a wet playtime. I was just about to give up and head back to the teacher when something caught my eye: a thin, worn paperback with a creepy-looking toad on the cover. The name of the book only fuelled my curiosity.
Should this book have been in our school library, I wondered? Was it a grown-up book, maybe, accidentally left behind?
As I flicked through it, I realised I'd found a book of short, scary stories. There was a picture at the start of each story, of strange-looking trolls, witches, and giants, giving a flavour of what was to come. A picture of a zombie spaceman (scarier than it sounds!) convinced me to start reading, and that wet breaktime passed by in a blur.
Suddenly, I was at a mining colony out on Mars, alongside a desperate astronaut as he tried to prevent a zombie outbreak. Many years later, I found out that the story was called 'The Animators', by Sydney J. Bounds. It was scary, gripping, and had an incredibly shocking and bleak ending, but I loved it. And that book set me off on a lifetime journey.
The benefits of a love of reading
Nowadays, when I'm not writing scary stuff for middle-grade children and young adults, I work as an English teacher at a busy secondary school in the South West. Each time I get a new Year 7 class, my first job is to assess their reading level, and to try to work out which book we're going to tackle as a class novel.
Then, as the years pass by, I bump into those pupils again and again, and there's one thing that always strikes me – that those who are interested in reading are the ones that usually do best in school overall. Whether they go on to study Geography, Business, RE, or the sciences, reading is the gateway skill to everything else.
At the school where I teach, I've also taken on the voluntary role of Reading Ambassador, where I try to promote a love of reading, but it can be an uphill battle. My school is in an inner-city area where progression to higher education is amongst the lowest in the country, and when that's combined with the teenage lure of phones and social media, it's easy to see why secondary pupils don't read as much as they could.
That's why it's so important to try to establish that love of reading early on in your children and do everything you can to keep it burning.
Pic: Brittney Bond
However, I know from my personal experience with my own children that turning them into enthusiastic readers isn't always easy. Whilst my eldest child has always been a voracious reader, endlessly checking out books on his library card, the same can't be said for my middle child, who's just turned 10. Piles of unfinished books litter his shelves, and he pulls no punches in his feedback about books that don't grab him immediately.
He's so harsh that when I gave him an early draft of my book Shiver Point to read, he came back to me with a long list of improvement points!
Ross Montgomery was the secret ingredient for him: first The Midnight Guardians, which my wife read aloud to him, and then The Chime Seekers, which he took up to his room and read alone night after night, eventually emerging to admit he'd been converted. Reading was fun after all!
But once you've got your child reading, and they head off to secondary school with even more things competing for their attention, how do you keep them reading?
Top tips to keep secondary school children reading
- Liaise with their English teachers or librarian at school. Teachers will be only too willing to give you ideas and reading recommendations, and most secondary schools are actively pushing reading, with posters up to promote which books teachers are reading, and clubs where the pupils have discussions.
- Keep an open mind on your children's reading choices. If they want to read horror, let them try it. Creepies felt forbidden that day I discovered it, and maybe that was part of the attraction. And even though some of the language was tough, that encouraged me to look up and learn that more difficult vocabulary. The same applies with graphic novels – there are some great ones out there.
- Give them lots of options – borrow books from the library, buy them books for Christmas and birthdays; the more books you expose them to, the more chance one might hook them. I recently converted a very reluctant reader in Year 9 by telling her to read the first page of Holly Jackson's A Good Girl's Guide to Murder. She's now on to Book 3!
- Read to them – hearing a snippet of a book, or a sample from an online shopping website (you can usually download the first chapter for free) might be enough to draw them in.
- Less can be more. Don't let huge books put your children off. There are lots of shorter, less intimidating books out there.
- Read yourself – if you try to foster that kind of environment where reading is the norm, hopefully your children will buy into it.
- Audiobooks are just as valuable as written books. Most libraries have a loan service where you can download the audio versions of the books onto your phone and listen through that. We often play audiobooks on long journeys to break up the monotony.
At the end of the day, there's no magic recipe, and you can only try your best. Hopefully, if you throw enough books at your children (not literally!) one of them might hit the mark, and be that special book that opens the door on a lifetime passion for reading, just like Creepies did for me.
Shiver Point: It Came From the Woods by Gabriel Dylan, is out now.