Reading Ahead: steering the course of the advanced child

As readers likely know, I came home from university this summer for the last time. In a desperate bid to feel productive despite not being in work during those warm months, I conducted a comprehensive clear-out of my room. Along the way, I rediscovered my primary school reading logs. I’ve already discussed what I found in them in a post on my childish reactions to well-known classics. But there was something even more interesting revealed in those pages.

For those who never had one, a reading log allows a record of each reading experience by a child – the title, how many pages and so on, with room for comments by both the child and the designated reading grown-up. My mother has a B.Ed, and my reading logs are very much the transcript of a long-term, long-distance conversation between two primary educators: her and my teacher. They clearly felt they had a lot to talk about, because I learnt to read at the age of two. However, because I learnt to read at the age of two, I was also able to follow their ostensibly over-my-head discussion of my literacy.

The result is that the way they talked about and approached my reading rubbed off on me. This wasn’t a matter of deliberate imitation, but simply of absorption and reflection. Unusually literate children aren’t necessarily less impressionable than others. The phenomenon is clearly recorded in my reading log. Here’s one example:

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This is a typical note from my mother. For those who ill-informedly claim that Harry Potter is badly written, I direct them to this vocabulary list, from Order of the Phoenix. I still know, without looking, that this is HP5, because J.K. literally taught me these words. Naysayers may complain that Rowling’s character descriptions are repetitive, but if she hadn’t narrated consistently Dumbledore looking “benignly” at Harry over his half-moon spectacles, who knows how long it might have taken me to learn what ‘benign’ meant? Spells ricochet, of course; and Dumbledore siphons off his thoughts into the Pensieve while Fawkes, with his superb red-gold plumage, looks on. Rowling didn’t contribute to the development of only reluctant or struggling readers, but all readers.

That was a tangent. What I wanted to point out  was that my mother here lists the words I learnt during the reading experience. Watch me consider the benefits of my reading in the exact same way, elsewhere in the log:

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Here, there’s absolutely no expression of whether I enjoyed the book, or what it was about; my response is framed entirely in terms of challenge and learning.

I should say at this point that I’m simply drawing attention to an interesting phenomenon – how pliable enthusiastic children are about being tricked into learning – and that I bear no grudges about falling for such a pleasurable and advantageous trick. I don’t remember writing this log, or feeling that the joy had been sucked out of reading by my mother’s instructive emphasis.

On the contrary, the other noteworthy dialogue in these reading logs shows my mother defending my right to put enjoyment first when reading, in conflict with the strategy of my primary school. See the note in red, again from my mother, at the bottom of this page:

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On yet another side note, if you read the note in green, I seem to have had quite a complex associative imagination… Kids are fascinating!

My Reception teacher responds “Of course!” to the request that I be allowed to bring in picture books to read alongside the short chapter books I was being given at school – but it was an ongoing point of contention. In this next photo, my Year One teacher expresses clear disappointment, not to say displeasure, that I had chosen an ‘easy’ book:

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My philosophy, as was clearly my mother’s, is that the most important thing is that a child reads, and ideally loves to read – regardless of the book in question. Who knows what great creations I may have missed out on as a result of being ‘moved on’ to harder books (and of moving myself on, since my comment about Help! I’m A Dinosaur exhibits the influence adults had on my reading approach)?

I don’t want to be too critical of my primary school teachers. They were probably just panicking that my parents, or their superiors, would accuse them of failing to stretch me – or that they would actually fail to stretch me. (Miss Crane, I’m blaming my A in Food Tech GCSE on you.) And, as I’ve said, I wasn’t scarred by this process. But the reading logs also reveal that, though I have since forgotten, I was aware of it – and not always happy about it. Let’s go back to Reception.

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It’s not hard to work out what’s happening here. In Reception, we frequently made our own stapled books, of a few pages long. On this particular day, it was ‘Can I? I can.’ On the left hand side of each page, or the verso as we call it in the biz, we had to ask a question, such as “Can I go to school with my friends?” On the recto, we had to affirm, “I can go to school with my friends”, and draw an accompanying picture. Groundbreaking stuff it ain’t, but I clearly didn’t want to be singled out to create something harder.

This may simply have been about me liking the concept of the book, but what if it was a matter of self-consciousness? The reading log also reveals that I frequently read aloud to the entire class, as a structured activity at the behest of our teacher.  I was a confident child and I’m sure I would remember this happening if it had been a source of alarm rather than excitement. But can I – or could my mother – trust my primary school teachers to make that judgement of my personality? I honestly don’t know. I turned out fine in the end, and didn’t even retain memories of these early tussles between teachers and family, but on balance the school’s approach seems a little heavy-handed.

During the same summer clear-out that led me to the reading logs, my mother drastically reduced the number of books she’d kept from her B.Ed, all of which are fascinating linguistic, psychological or sociological studies. I inherited several, including a little number called The Gifted Child. It notes that, as the grown-ups overseeing my reading remarked, “The gifted child frequently excels in the size and quality of his vocabulary”, and that “[such] children are tremendous readers” who “start early”; it also offers guidance for teachers regarding how this can be furthered with the provision of interesting or challenging books. Yet there is absolutely no proscription of other books. What would be the point, whe the studies cited by The Gifted Child demonstrate that the ‘gifted’ child already has the enthusiasm and resulting literary benefit that reading brings?

I asked a variety of friends, from both secondary school and university, who were identified as ‘advanced’ readers in primary school what guidance they had experienced. The answer I received was universal: either they were aware of ‘graded’ books but allowed to progress through them at their own pace, or they were given additional or different reading. Not a single one, however, had my experience of teachers trying to prevent or discourage the reading of books not considered ‘challenging’. This isn’t a reliable source, of course – if someone asked me this before I’d found the reading logs, I’d have given the same answer. But I do wonder how common this truly was.

I suppose the only conclusion to draw is that our interests and abilities are shaped before we can even have lasting consciousness of that shaping. So if you’re an avid, fast or advanced reader today, while you may have a pushy grown-up to blame for stifling your freedom, you also, almost certainly, have a pushy grown-up to thank.

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