‘We can see the deadening effects of reading programs that encourage young children to start with letters, then move to short words within a controlled vocabulary and eventually (and only when they are ‘ready’) be given whole passages to read.’ – Dr Alyson Simpson.

In her latest book, author Alyson Simpson has teamed years of experience as a teacher librarian, academic and researcher with a series of interviews with children, authors and illustrators to make it easier for teachers and parents to help children choose books.

According to the children she spoke to, reading is ‘something you can get very excited about’. Children closely follow the authors they’ve read, they vote for them in children’s choice awards and they love to get involved in what they’re reading. But they’re also nervous in front of the bookshelves, not knowing how to choose the next book when they finish a series, or how to unearth a new book that matches their reading ability.

Armed with this knowledge, Dr Simpson is encouraging teachers to allow students to read for enjoyment and to let them follow their passions rather than dictating specific ‘approved’ texts.
Dr Simpson is a senior lecturer and director of the primary bachelor of education program at the University of Sydney.

Her new book, Reading Under the Covers: Helping Children to Choose Books, was launched recently in response to a concern that children’s literacy is being smothered by rigid reading lists that order books into age and sex appropriate categories.

In her book, Dr Simpson outlines the findings of interviews and surveys with 100 NSW schoolchildren aged from seven to 12 and she is calling on education ministers to return to a more balanced approach to literature in school literacy programs.

‘We hear about the importance of learning to read more often than we hear of the importance of getting excited about reading’ says Dr Simpson.

‘We can see the deadening effects of reading programs that encourage young children to start with letters, then move to short words within a controlled vocabulary and eventually (and only when they are ‘ready’) be given whole passages to read,’ she said.

‘Significant amounts of research have shown that the effect of using only this kind of staged learning can kill enthusiasm for reading.’

‘It’s true that students need to be functionally literate but if we want students who will also grow up to be critically literate, then we need to be concerned about creating high levels of curiosity, play and wonder.

‘It is a mistake to think that children only enjoy and learn from simple language and simple concepts. Parents, teachers and librarians sometimes limit children’s access to only those books that match their reading age rather than their interest level.’

Dr Simpson’s study found children’s favourite story genres included humour, horror, fantasy, suspense and biography. And it appears that none of the children wanted the simple, bland, emotionless and predictable!

Jackie French, the well-known children’s author was interviewed by Dr Simpson for her book and she said the solution was simple.

‘The secret to getting kids to read is to give them books that absorb them,’ the author said.
‘So often poor readers are given… simple books that promptly bore them. The kids have problems reading – not understanding.’

But while it’s important to allow children to follow their interests and likes, many children will still need some adult guidance.

‘A lot of children may read everything by one particular author but don’t know where to go next, so it is the teacher’s or parent’s role to introduce new books,’ Dr Simpson said.

‘While they do need guidance and support, we need to listen to children and to trust their opinions. They know what they like and they know what is fun to read. Just like adults, they have their own preferences.

‘As one student told me, girls don’t always want the happy princess stories.’

Tips for teachers on how to grow bookworms

•    Listen to children’s interests and needs when finding books for them.
•    Teachers can set aside time for children to give reviews of favourite books to their classmates, and use online sites where children can read and write their own book reviews.
•    Teachers can involve children in children’s choice book awards that operate throughout Australia, where children read, nominate and vote for their favourite titles. (One of the most common comments in the study was how much it meant to children to meet personally with authors and illustrators on award days).
•    Look for new book ideas from the winning books.
•    Invite authors or illustrators to your school.
•    Allow children to bring in a book they are engrossed in at home for quiet reading times at school, rather than forcing them to read set titles.
•    Use classroom studies of authors and illustrators to introduce students to new book possibilities.
•    Create a special reading area in the classroom with a good supply of engaging books, and hang book posters and book reviews.
•    Create booklists ordered by interests, not age and sex.