Young person lying on the grass reading

As part of the BBC’s LovetoRead campaign, comedian and actor Javone Prince (whom I have never heard of but, then again, I’m not exactly down with the kids) was put to the task of getting some reluctant teens to start reading. 

The school he worked with, Ripley St Thomas Academy in Lancaster, is by all accounts a brilliant secondary school, however, like all schools, it struggles to get its pupils to love reading with recent measures including introducing new libraries, getting authors to come and speak to the pupils and offering students reading classes so they can catch up with their reading in class. This is a consistent story; professors are complaining that their students are going through their university life without even reading a whole book, while students say they are asked to read too much, while four million adults in the UK never read for pleasure

Prince initially chose about 20 pupils aged 14-15 who hadn’t picked up a book in a year, and thought he’d have a very easy task which just involved giving them a book and letting them get on with it. Instead, when he returned the next day to ask how they had read, most had read nothing and a few people had reached about page 10. When asked what they'd done the previous even, apart from one girl who spent a lot of her time playing sport, the rest claimed they had no time, but spent it on Netflix binges and Facebook. 

However Prince (surely it's not his real name?!) was a good choice for the task - he didn't do well at school and his love of reading comes out of a love of acting, especially Shakespeare, and the art of storytelling. Like many others, he also suffers from dyslexia so find the actual act of reading difficult. He therefore understands the frustration the students feel, and the stubbornness they display.

14-15-year- old is when reading declines. As young children, they are often read to by their parents, and those who are read to each night do tend to be the biggest readers as adults. However by the time they are in their teens they’ve more independence and are not put to bed by their parents, and therefore reading and bedtime is not seen in the same light, as a treat and a bonding exercise.

The number of 11-17-year-olds who don’t read has now reached the dizzy heights of 27%. Although it’s known that parents play an important role in helping their kids love literature, those interviewed seemed loving, caring and sensible, and really wanting to help their children. One parent mentioned how much she felt that her son was missing out, as it was something that gave her so much pleasure, and (spoiler alert), another regularly picked up books before a holiday which the daughter joined in with having caught the reading bug by the end of the show. 

The book chosen was called One, and tells the story of conjoined twins Grace and Tippi who have to deal with the world as individuals with their own personalities, but together. Not exactly my cup of tea, but I can certainly see the appeal of understanding what it might be like to be in their shoes and understanding how their experiences might relate to me. Indeed, it was quoted in the programme that reading is one of the best ways to strengthen our empathy, and that reading literary fiction helps us recognise other people’s emotions.

Prince still couldn’t get them motivated to read so he had to resort drastic measures including calling on his friend and TV presenter Helen Skelton. She devised a task where the students had to pair off with one another, dress in clothes which would help them get stuck into feeling like conjoined twins and walk around town. Weary of the exercise at first, it did get them engaged with one boy saying that it made him feel different, and helped them understand how they might compromise. He said that as someone of a different ethnicity he also often felt different and stared at, so he could relate to the characters.

Three young people looking at their phones

Teenagers today spend four hours on average on the internet. Those who spend an hour a day on their phones can drop the equivalent of two GCSEs. Of all the children’s hobbies, reading is the most important one to secure a good job, and those who read more earn more. Image credit: Esther Vargas/flickr

I don’t think I realised how hard the pupils would find it. I remember as a 14-15-year-old young adult literature was only really coming into existence, so when we were asked what we’d read during the holidays the answers were as diverse as Other People’s Children, Wild Swans, Harry Potter and Vanity Fair. Most of us did read less that we did in either or childhood or adulthood. But nowadays there’s a market, a section in the bookshop for young people, and something to whet the appetite of young people, and I thought that the act of picking something up would just be so much easier. 

I also hadn’t really factored in dyslexia playing a part. There was one girl who found it so hard to read, and her dislike of reading was wrapped up in the fact that it made her so much slower to take in information, and therefore understand it, even though she was a bright pupil. She was frustrated because she had tried and not got anywhere, and by the point the film crew come in she had almost just given up on school. As someone who REALLY LIKES reading, and who feels as though it's similar to breathing - you just absorb words via osmosis, don't you? - I found it heartbreaking that she so wanted to enjoy it, but couldn't.

But the thing that really baffled me was their reaction to reading. I understand that it can be hard to get into, a struggle sometimes, and that reading needs practise. We've all been there where we've found it hard to get stuck in to a book, and have wanted to put it down, however I thought that young people would like reading because you could use your imagination and create worlds for yourself. In my view, TV and films are not all that different to novels. How wrong I was! The students liked TV and films because everything was given to you, but books were seen as too much hard work. They didn't seem to have the attention span to concentrate on a book and they wanted to story immediately. One girl even skipped through to see what happened at the end; she couldn't even wait!

After all this moaning, I'm pleased to say that the experiment did work. Once they saw the benefits of struggling through, many of them got quite into it and a few finished in the three weeks. Those that did read it noted that it made them proud that they had accomplished something and rightly so. They girl with dyslexia completed it, and I felt proud of her too!