Czech teacher Miloš Šlapal notices that children hardly read at home. That is why he included reading in his lessons at Kopřivnice elementary school. Children can bring whatever books they want. Even a comic is considered a read book. “It’s an underrated genre,” he explains in an interview for Aktuálně.cz. It keeps track of how the pages read affect the students’ overall success at school.
Can children still concentrate on reading today, in the age of social networks and short videos?
Yes, but it’s a long-term thing. It will not come by itself, we have to support the children in this.
I notice that even us adults are starting to have problems concentrating on a longer text. That’s why I’m interested in how to work with it for children who have had phones in their hands since childhood?
Above all, children must have regular opportunities to read. Of course, it is ideal for smaller children when they have someone to read with or when someone reads to them. The school can help a lot with this later if they set aside time for them to read regularly. Thanks to this, children read with their peers and acquire the habit. Without a habit, one will not become a long-term reader.
How do you incorporate reading into your lessons?
The reading workshop format suits me and my colleagues in the Helping Schools to Succeed project. We usually have a space set aside for it once a week, at the first level it can be included more than once. Children have 20 to 35 minutes in class, during which they read books they have chosen themselves. Then they talk about them with their classmates and think about them.
It’s a format that you can easily use in early grades, and you can even read with preschoolers with picture books. Children also become readers thanks to them.
Do you work in reading workshops with compulsory literature?
Mandatory literature did not work for us in the reading workshops, but gradually, as children grow, they become better readers and need to encounter more stimulating or challenging books.
Can you give an example?
Now in the second grade, the girls read and borrowed the book Absolute Madness, a comic book by Tereza and Tomáš Kopecký. It describes the problems and moods of a girl suffering from morbid anxiety. The children encountered something similar during covid and, together with the main character, they were able to cope with the situations they experienced themselves.
But are comics a suitable way to lead children to read, especially in the second grade? After all, it is mainly about pictures and there is not much text.
Comics are generally underrated. Especially teachers who don’t consider it reading. But it is a unique genre. There are comic books that are heavier than the classic ones. I can list the Maus comic about the Holocaust. It is emotionally challenging and some children need support to understand how the story is put together, how the author works with words, with the visual side, with symbols.
We certainly cannot say that children should not read comics because there is little text or thought in them. And there is one more indisputable advantage associated with them – children can easily read the comic in one go. They then feel good that they have managed to read the book from cover to cover.
He who reads more is more educated
How much should children read in one school year?
The minimum limit I talk to my students about is 800 pages in ten months at school. This will guarantee that the child will not be completely illiterate. If he reads 1500 pages a year, there is a good chance that it will start helping him in other subjects as well.
Who reads more is smarter? Does this ratio apply?
He who reads more is more educated. Especially with boys, it happens that they are intelligent, but they are blocked by the fact that they do not read much. Until the fifth grade, it is enough for them to listen to the material at school, but in the higher grades, a larger amount of texts, knowledge and information is thrown at them. They cannot cope with it and cannot fulfill their potential.
Have you noticed this during your teaching experience?
I taught a student with dyslexia, she had threes in the fifth grade and she couldn’t read much and didn’t want to. In the reading workshops, she could choose the books she wanted and read them at her own pace. It pushed her. She got sick for two weeks in the eighth grade and proudly told me that she read four books in that time. She finished elementary school with only A’s and in high school she had about two A’s. Reading really helped her.
I kept track of it in all the classes in which I had a reading workshop. I found out some interesting things about it. On average, those who did not get close to 800 pages in a year did not do well, had poorer concentration and more often had behavioral problems.
Good students did read at least 1500 pages, but they were not always avid readers. Above 1500 pages, I no longer found direct proportionality with further improvement in grades. Some read maybe 6,000 pages a year, but that didn’t mean they had the best grades in the class.
Does it make a difference if he reads 1500 pages of comics or thick books with small print?
If a child learns to read – probably thanks to comics – he usually gets to the more challenging books anyway. For a student who has avoided reading until now, just the fact that he finished reading the comic works as a satisfaction. He experiences the feeling of reading a book for the first time in his life, and he experiences this feeling repeatedly. He gets over a certain magical boundary and considers himself a reader.
Is it useful to acquire the habit of reading in childhood for future life?
When children read a lot, they can move on to more demanding reading operations. This means that they do not only focus on the characters, plot and content of the book, but also start thinking about the author. Why did he write it, why in this way, how does he want to influence the reader, to whom the book is intended? Thanks to this, they acquire critical literacy.
And how can it affect their future? A recent literacy survey in the United States found that more than half of Americans are already below a sixth-grade reading level. This is a direct threat to democracy. Let’s see how disinformation works now. People are able to believe anything because they do not have the tools in their heads to assess, verify and evaluate information. At the same time, the sixth grade is still far below the level of critical literacy.
Can you figure it out in pages again? How many pages should an adult read to be critically literate?
It is very individual, but if a child were to read a book every month during his nine years of schooling, he would reliably get over ten thousand pages, and that is the limit at which we can say that a person reads well. That he is already freed from the problems associated with the technique of reading and understanding the text. But just reading a lot of pages is not enough, in order to develop critical literacy, we need to provide students with many opportunities and encounters with different types of texts during their reading development.
Do your students also read outside of school?
Reading at home is under threat. And that even in families where reading was done before. Competition from other media is terribly strong. Social networks and other attractive activities distract children from reading. In Germany, in repeated research, they followed the deviation of pupils from reading. While children still read a lot in the first and second grades, in the fourth and fifth grades their reading drops by half, and in the seventh and eighth grades by 70 percent.
Reading workshops ensure they maintain the habit. They encounter reading regularly, they have a group around them that also reads, and because of that they consider it important. They often finish reading books at home. If they at least try to read something outside of school, together with our regular workshop once a week, they get to a significant number of pages.
Force read doesn’t work
What should parents do to make children read more? Read to them before bed? Force them to spend some time with a book every day?
If you don’t read, you won’t be able to access the Internet? Such coercion does not work. The child then perceives reading as something bad. It is better to give them an interesting offer. Don’t you want to read a bit and I’ll read a bit? Asking them if they want to buy a book, giving it to them regularly among other gifts for Christmas, for birthdays, for a certificate. And read alone at home. That’s about the most parents can do. When he tries too hard to influence the child to read, it doesn’t work very well.
Will the books that were popular with previous generations still appeal to children?
Foglarovy for example? At least. The subjects of older books no longer mean much to today’s children, they are not relevant for them. The second thing is the way of writing. Children watch movies from an early age, even those with a rather complex narrative. They intertwine stories, start at the end and return to the beginning. Or the views of different characters alternate in them. So children have a complex narrative structure in their heads. That’s why they can’t read books that are slow, the narration is lengthy and boring for them. However, contemporary authors can work with it. They write action-packed, edited and refined books.
What book can make children read today?
David Walliams can do it, for example, and his books Krysburger, The Little Billionaire, Dad for All the Money or Grandmother Rough. He also plays with typography in them, for example he scatters the word into individual letters. He also uses striking images, at the same time the topics are not banal at all. In Dad for all the money, the main character’s father was a famous car racer. But he had an accident and his fame faded. With no means, he starts working as a driver for the mafia and ends up in prison for it. The Little Billionaire is about a rich boy who has everything except friends. He can’t buy you. The author presents difficult and serious topics to children in an attractive way. Thanks to this, children think about what can happen in life.
What about Harry Potter? Is it still relevant for them, when the first part was released 26 years ago? Does it still maintain its reputation as a book that attracts children to read?
I don’t know if it will appeal because Harry Potter is difficult for children who haven’t read a single book. But it’s definitely not a read that doesn’t have something to say to children today. Just by how in the first books Harry Potter is small and gradually matures. This motivates children to read the entire series.
Let’s go back to compulsory reading. Do you think it makes sense to create lists of tens to hundreds of years old books that students must have read for graduation?
Significant works certainly play their role in obtaining connections, a civilizational context. Another thing is how they are treated and if they still provide an experience for the students. It is not mandatory to graduate from Babička. Schools create their lists according to specified criteria. I know a Czech woman who let her high school students choose basically any of their own books from contemporary Czech and world literature. Of course they had to be of a certain level. It assumed that the teacher would create a worksheet for each such book. But it is easier for teachers to make a limited selection and use the same worksheets all the time.
What are your favorite books?
My reading is a separate chapter. I read a lot as a child, but even now I find time to read. If I didn’t read myself, my presence in the reading workshops would be much less useful. I like to read Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo, Chuck Palahniuk, Michel Houellebecq, among our authors Radka Denemarková. I am interested in authors who solve our current problems. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy books from the 19th century. But they have a harder time today.
In general, the challenge is to transition children from children’s books to more challenging books and to classics that require more mature ways of reading. Contemporary authors can deal with this and write books for teenagers in a different way. They use advanced writing techniques, alternate narrators, create complex layouts, but in such an attractive way that they appeal to teenage readers. Thanks to this, they can enjoy what is called aesthetic reading, even with such demanding books. But now they enjoy the book not only for its plot, but also for the way it is written.
He works as a teacher of history, Czech language and literature at the Emil Zátopek Elementary School in Kopřivnice. He is involved in The Kellner Family Foundation’s Helping Schools Succeed project, which provides funding, expertise and inspiration to schools. Miloš Šlapal belongs to the expert management of the project, works in teams, prepares and organizes meetings of experiential reading and writing teachers. His specialty is the so-called reading workshops, where he allocates time in his classes to read books. Students can bring whatever book they want.
Video: A good reader is not one who reads quickly. Reading has a different role in children’s lives, says Kuzmičová (18 October 2022)
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