Children, Reading and Power

“I read because it helps me learn more”: a couple of thoughts on children, reading and power

Dr Meg Roughley

When it comes to their reading, are kids and their adults on the same page?  This is a question I’ve been asking myself and anyone else who would care to listen (or was forced to listen) since I came across a survey of children’s reading preferences conducted by Christina Clark and Amelia Foster for the National Literacy Trust and published in 2005.[1]  Certain results of that survey continue to fascinate me:  I find myself randomly referring to them in lectures, seminars, tutorials, and even children’s birthday parties.  In particular, I’m intrigued by those that reflect children’s awareness that knowledge is power and that reading is the gateway to that knowledge, and I’m intrigued by adult resistance, which I’ve collided with so frequently, to the notion of the child reading as a ‘will to power’.

When it comes to their reading, are kids and their adults on the same page? This is a question I’ve been asking myself and anyone else who would care to listen (or was forced to listen) since I came across a survey of children’s… Click To Tweet

Just last week, at a children’s birthday party, I collided with that resistance again, in the form of an English teacher who, when I mentioned one result of the survey, very much regretted that the majority (51.6%) of the children reported reading ‘because it’s a skill for life’ and a significant proportion (42%) indicated they read ‘because it will help me get a job’.  ‘How sad,’ he said, ‘that it should come down to that.’  But, is it not ‘sad’ only if you look at ‘a job’ from an adult perspective?  What does ‘a job’ mean to someone who has yet to get one, for whom work-for-pay could reasonably be a (desired) future destination, promising financial independence and self-determination—and power?  (If not, why do we keep asking kids what they want to be when they grow up?)

In the 2005 survey, over 8,000 pupils in 98 primary and secondary schools in England completed a 23-point self-report questionnaire intended to yield some insight into why children choose or choose not to read. One thing this survey makes clear is that whatever it is kids think they are doing when they are reading, it doesn’t always correspond with adult notions of their intentions.  Two sets of results have always stood out for me as particularly indicative of a disjunct, the responses to the questions ‘I read because…’ and ‘Who taught you to read?’ What do the children’s responses suggest about reading and access to power, especially in light of subsequent Literacy Trust surveys indicating that ‘Mixed’, ‘Black’ and ‘Asian’ children are more inclined to read regularly than ‘White’ children?[2]  This latter consideration is particularly important given the recognised inequalities in our systems of education.

According to those surveyed in 2005, ‘I read because’:  1. it’s a skill for life (51.6%); 2. it helps me find out what I want/need to know (46.8%); 3. it is fun (46.1%); 4. it will help me get a job (42.6%).

If I am FSM[3], ‘I read because’:  1. it’s a skill for life (50%); 2. it will help me get a job (48%); 3. it helps me find out what I want/need to know (44%); 4. it is fun (42%).

If I am NFSM[4], ‘I read because’: 1. it’s a skill for life (52%); 2. it is fun (49%); 3. it helps me find out what I want/need to know (47%); 4. it will help me get a job (42%).

If I am FSM, ‘I read because’: 1. it’s a skill for life (50%); 2. it will help me get a job (48%); 3. it helps me find out what I want/need to know (44%); 4. it is fun (42%). Click To Tweet

Of the nine possible answers, these four were consistently the most frequently ticked boxes.  Clearly, a significant proportion of children are reading because ‘it is fun’, which is perhaps relieving, though we might want to ask what ‘fun’ is, at some point, and why it might be different from practising skills or finding stuff out. However, it is the pragmatic responses that dominate here: children apparently see their reading as acquisition of a skill and knowledge that will help them (become more powerful) in the future.  That this pragmatism is more pronounced in the FSM pupils’ responses, where it’s more important to prepare for a ‘job’ than to have ‘fun’, suggests this is indeed a matter of the getting of power and advantage.  The 2005 survey did not consider ‘ethnicity’ – the authors, to their credit, recognising that doing ‘justice to the various minority ethnic groups’ would involve too large a range of categories – but subsequent Literacy Trust surveys have, and those results indicate that ‘Mixed’, ‘Black’ and ‘Asian’ pupils are more likely than ‘White’ pupils to enjoy reading, to read daily and to read in their free time.  All three groups are more likely to read both non-fiction and news, as well as fiction, than ‘White’ pupils.  Of course, there are all sorts of possible explanations for these results, but is it not possible to suspect at least some operative pragmatism or recognition that reading leads to knowledge which leads to power/advantage amongst children of colour?

The 2005 survey also makes it quite clear that the kids do not associate reading (and knowledge acquisition?) only with school.

‘Who taught you to read’: 1. mother (83.9%); 2. teacher (72.2%); 3. father (65.0%); TA (31.3%).

‘Who do you read with?’: 1. mother (42.5%); 2. teacher (38.5%); 3. father (32.4%); 4. sibling (22.6%).

‘Who do you talk about your reading with?’: 1. mother (57.4%); 2. father (42.1%); 3. friend (39.9%); 4. teacher (34.6%).

So, as far as the kids are concerned, in their perception, this reading thing is predominantly down to Mum.  Generally, we do acknowledge how largely ‘Mum’ or principal carer figures in a child’s universe; however, I think I’m safe in saying that we also, at the same time, associate the acquisition of knowledge and marketable skills with schools and teachers.  Mothers, particularly mothers who are not ‘White’ and middle-class, are often considered as remote and uninfluential, if not an actual problem, in the institution.[5]  But, what are we missing of the child’s experience of things, of ‘mother tongues’ and ‘motherlodes’ of knowledge, of family history and cultural scaffolding, when we do that?  Of what ‘powers’ are we in danger of dispossessing them?

All of this emphasises the importance of considering what texts we make accessible for these knowledge-seekers to read, with ‘Mum’ or alone, in their own time or at school.  Whether the texts are fiction or non-fiction, on paper or on screen, FSM children and the kids of the ‘global majority’ need and deserve equal access to literature that will give them powers of developing a skill and finding out things they ‘want/need to know’ about themselves and their world, so they can get that ‘job’ and help craft a more equitable society.  They, and all of us, need decolonised histories and stories with heroes of colour.

References

[1] Clark, Christina and Amelia Foster (2005).  Children’s and young people’s reading habits and preferences: The who, what, why, where and when.  National Literacy Trust, December 2005.

[2] Clark, Christine and Anne Teravainen (2017).  Children’s and Young People’s Reading in 2016: Findings from our Annual Literacy Survey 2016.  Literacy Trust, July 2017.

Clark, Christina (2019).  Children’s and young people’s reading in 2017/18: Findings from our Annual Literacy Survey.  Literacy Trust, January 2019.

[3] FSM = receiving free school meals

[4] NFSM = not receiving free school meals

[5] See esp. Din, Suma (2017).  Muslim Mothers and Their Children’s Schooling. Trentham.  Her 2016 children’s book One Day is a very useful (and ‘fun’!) source of world knowledge for primary children, by the way.

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