May 28, 2020

Reading for Wellbeing – Kate Glavina

I have often shared with trainee teachers the analogy promoted by Professor Sims Bishop of books being ‘windows, mirrors, and sliding doors’ and how important these concepts are in terms of the range and diversity of books shared with pupils in school. ‘Windows’ is to do with ‘looking out’ – it is the idea that the books we give children offer views of the ‘worlds of others’, beyond their own reality. ‘Sliding doors’ is to do with stepping beyond the view from the window – enabling children to enter (albeit imaginatively) the world of the book to experience a different reality. ‘Mirrors’ is to do with book choices including texts that mirror and reflect the child’s own reality so that the pages of the book value and validate who that child ‘is’. In other words, the child is looking back at themselves. The combination of ‘mirrors, windows and sliding doors’ is a powerful way of encapsulating the different ways in which books enable children to enter new worlds, visit new places, inhabit the lives of characters and, most importantly, learn to empathise by ‘walking around ‘in someone else’s shoes’. These are surely undisputed reasons for all schools providing pupils with a rich range of texts and a wide range of reading experiences, including time in the day for independent reading and for being read to.

A further reason for parents and educators to recognise and understand the importance of encouraging children to read is the fact that research by The Reading Agency has found reading can benefit our wellbeing and help us to make social connections. Research suggest that people who read regularly are more satisfied with life and more likely to feel that the things they do are worthwhile. Reading for pleasure can improve relationships and reduce symptoms of depression. Considering these research findings in relation to children, it seems fair to suggest that emotionally, books can offer children dual benefits – they can be an opportunity for the reader to become rapt and delighted in an ‘escape’ from the ‘real world’ into a magical, fantastical one. Equally, books can be transformative for children who are feeling isolated, worried and vulnerable, in the way that they can offer children scope to share and identify with a character who is depicted as sharing similar ‘life challenges’. Jacqueline Wilson highlighted this exact point recently, emphasising the power of books to reassure children experiencing difficult times, helping them to feel that they are not ‘alone’. In terms of wellbeing, then, the world of books has the scope to provide both reassurance to children and a sense of ‘connection’. More generally, books which invite and enable children to enter the lives of others and inhabit their concerns and preoccupations – whether mirroring their own or not - can be a key antidote to the inward-looking, self-absorption which is engendered by many social media platforms which isolate and create anxiety for many youngsters in our classrooms.

At a time when the Education Inspection Framework is placing an emphasis on reading for pleasure and schools will consequently be reviewing their reading programmes, it is timely to build on the issues around diversity of text selection and opportunities for reading and to make explicit to parents and educators, the role books play in promoting emotional wellbeing. What should we be doing? What messages should we be sharing? Perhaps a key message to convey to parents is that ‘family encouragement’ to read beyond early childhood is invaluable. In areas of social disadvantage where literacy levels may be low and some parents may be holding enduring negative memories of reading themselves, teachers could invite them to share story time during the school day so they can observe ‘how it’s done’ and recognise that sharing a book is not a threatening or difficult thing to do. Class and school libraries should offer diversity in their stock so that both teachers and pupils have ready access to books which reflect important themes and highlight pertinent issues. Steadily, in these ways, it is possible for schools to develop a culture in which it is routine for staff, children and parents to reach for a book for solace, ‘company’ and understanding. That is to say, in terms of supporting children’s wellbeing, the power and potential of reading has never been more important.

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