Do you find it difficult to share your love of reading with the kids? Perhaps you are frustrated that the kids love digital games more than reading. The link below is to an article that may provide some help in getting young non-readers into books and reading.
In this confusing and often conflicted world, children’s author Gillian Cross has summed up what it is about reading fiction that is so important: “Good stories help us make sense of the world. They invite us to discover what it’s like being someone completely different.”
As the author of a children’s novel myself, I’m going to double down on this and say that if this is important for adults, it’s 100 times more important for children.
Children passionately want to understand what’s going on – and fiction is a potent way for them to do this. A study by education professor Maria Nikolajeva found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.
In the wealth of recent fiction for children and young adults, here are ten powerful stories for young people, addressing some of the most important, and troubling, questions we face today.
1. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Orion)
Imagine being imprisoned for your whole life. Imagine growing up like Subhi.
The nine-year-old’s world ends at the diamond-shaped fence – the outer edge of the detention centre he is detained in with his Rohingya family in Australia.
Fraillon draws a vivid picture of life inside the fence – vulnerable people fleeing persecution, only to find – instead of the peace and sanctuary they so desperately need – indifference and hostility.
But Subhi finds hope in his friendship with an Australian girl from outside the fence. (Age: 11+)
2. The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew (Red Ink)
What if Germany had won World War II and the UK was now part of a Third German Reich? This is a coming-of-age story with a difference – 16-year-old Jessika is a talented ice-skater in a high-ranking REICH?family.
But her friendship with subversive, courageous and desirable Clem threatens everything: her family, her future, and her very life. This is a story that paints the dangers of totalitarianism in vivid language. (Age: 12+)
3. Boy 87 by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Press)
Fourteen-year-old Shif lives in a country that conscripts its children into the army. The country isn’t named, but may be in Africa. He wants to play chess with his best friend Bini and race him home from school. But the army comes calling and the two must flee.
Shif experiences at first hand the brutality of a totalitarian government, then the trauma of migration and trafficking. Despite this, the story manages to be hopeful. (Age: 12 +)
4. The Jungle by Pooja Puri (Ink Road)
Sixteen-year-old Mico is surviving his life in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. Without anyone to look out for him, he must look out for himself, living on his wits and his luck. Using careful research, Puri shows us what life is like as a refugee, owning nothing, not even the clothes on your back or the blanket you sleep beneath.
She shows us the desperation and terrible lengths refugees will go to, to try to find a home. But when Mico meets Leila, we see, too, the hope – and the risk – that friendship brings. (Age: 12+)
5. After the Fire by Will Hill (Usborne)
Moonbeam has lost her mother and she only knows life inside The Fence – it’s a life controlled by cult leader Father John.
But one night a devastating fire burns that life to the ground – the buildings, the people, the leader are all gone and only Moonbeam and a handful of children survive. Moonbeam and the others must now discover the world beyond the fence.
Can she do this when Father John has told her to trust no one outside? Using the WACO siege as his source material, Hill explores the power of brainwashing and cult identity.
Moonbeam’s search is for a truth she can stand by now, and for the mother she thinks must be dead. (Age: 12+)
6. I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan (Macmillan)
Written in the voice of its smart and self-deprecating heroine, British Muslim Pakistani teenager Muzna, this is both a coming-of-age novel and a thriller. Muzna navigates her life at home and at school, working out how to have her own identity and her own ambitions, not those imposed by her parents, religion, school or friends.
And, as her relationship with Arif develops, the story becomes a thriller, and the stakes become very high. (Age: 13+)
7. The Territory trilogy by Sarah Govett (Firefly Press)
What happens when the sea levels rise? Govett imagines a flooded world with dwindling resources and not enough dry land for everyone. Choices have to be made, about who stays on the dry territory, and who is banished beyond the fence, to the dreaded Wetlands. But when 15-year-old Noa finds herself beyond the fence, she discovers that not everything the adults have been telling her is true. (Age: 13+)
8. Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias (Scholastic)
Following Britain’s withdrawal from Europe, a far-right Nationalist party has come to power.
Only those born in Britain (or BB as they are known) are allowed to live legally – everyone born outside the country is subject to immediate arrest and deportation and failing to report illegals is a crime.
Mathias has set her thriller in a British dystopia that is more scarily plausible than ever.
The young protagonist Zara is an illegal living in this scary new Britain – and falling in love with Ash might be the most dangerous thing she could do. (Age: 13+)
9. Moonrise by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)
It’s ten years since Joe saw his brother Ed – and now Ed is on death row, facing execution for the murder of a police officer. What do they know of each other now? Ed says he’s innocent of the murder, but everyone else believes he’s guilty.
Crossan’s verse novel explores a single summer, perhaps Ed’s last, as 17-year-old Joe struggles to understand what has been done to his brother – and to himself. (Age: 13+)
10. The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntyre (David Fickling Books)
The only picture book in the list, McIntyre’s delightfully illustrated story explores how intolerance and scaremongering can run like a mad fever through a community. When new neighbours move in to the tower block, hysteria builds quickly, until finally the other animals discover the truth about their newest neighbours. (Age: 2+)
The link below is to an article that takes a look at reading and depression – does reading help?
On the evening of November 9 1938 a Nazi pogrom raged across German and Austrian cities. Nazis branded the atrocity with a poetic term: Kristallnacht or “Crystal Night”. In that branding, fiction took hold. In English it translates as “The Night of Broken Glass” but that also tames the horror. Yes, broken glass from Jewish shopfront windows littered the streets, but also hundreds of synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned to the ground while Jews were beaten, imprisoned and killed.
Eight decades later, novelists are still trying to make sense of the pogrom – which was was designed to give the Nazi Party’s antisemitic agenda the legitimacy of public support.
Kristallnacht marked a new epoch. Earlier pogroms, such as in Russia, were popular riots – now, for the first time, an industrial nation turned the forces of the state against an ethnic group within its own borders. To get away with this, a state needs to control the narrative. In this instance, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was the key player. When a young Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan entered the German Embassy in Paris and shot a German official, Goebbels saw the possibilities. He used news of the event to trigger Kristallnacht.
Fear and disbelief
The state that attacks its citizens also turns on its writers and free-thinkers – people who can construct a counter-narrative. The future Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti and his wife, the writer Veza, were such people. “We shall remember this November”, a Jewish character reflects in Veza Canetti’s novel The Tortoises, “when we are all being punished because a child went wrong and was led astray”.
In the wake of Kristallnacht, the Canettis fled Vienna for Paris and by January 1939 had settled in exile in London, where, in a feverish three months, Veza wrote her novel (unpublished until this century). It provides a window on how intellectuals fought to understand the unimaginable as it unfolded. “The temples are burning!” says one character. “Can you believe that’s possible?” asks another. So why don’t they go and see for themselves? “People haven’t the heart. They feel like criminals. They believe the temple will strike them down if they watch and don’t do anything about it.”
Emil and Karl, the first published novel to feature the pogrom, came out in New York in February 1940. Yankev Glatshteyn, a Polish Jew and immigrant to the US, wrote it in Yiddish to alert American Jewish youngsters to the perils facing their European kindred. It features two friends, one a Jewish boy and the other the son of socialists. Forced to scrub streets clean with their hands after Kristallnacht, both boys learn they must flee their country if they are to stay alive.
Christa Wolf, who forged life as a writer in what became East Germany, fed her memories of the night into Nelly, a character in her 1976 novel A Model Childhood. Nelly knew nothing of Jews, but in that pogrom she witnessed a burning synagogue. “It wouldn’t have taken much for Nelly to have succumbed to an improper emotion: compassion,” Wolf reflected. “But healthy German common sense built a barrier against it: fear.” These asides of bitter irony note the chilling reality of the time: those who showed sympathy for the plight of the Jews risked sharing their plight.
So to the 21st century. With events such as Kristallnacht locked away in history, what use are we novelists? Novels unlock history. Governments maintain their hold on narratives that justify abuses of power – but novelists can invert that narrative order to reveal neglected viewpoints.
In 2009, Laurent Binet novelised the life and death of Reinhard Heydrich (a man known as “Hitler’s Brain” – the German acronym which gives the book its title: HHhH. Under orders from Goebbels, Heydrich set the November pogrom in motion. Binet maintains clinical control of the story, anchoring it to archived fact. Heydrich is shown measuring Kristallnacht’s efficiency, including the cost of all the broken glass.
In Michele Zackheim’s Last Train to Paris (2013) an American Jewish female journalist is dispatched into Nazi-controlled Berlin. Highlighted here is not the broken glass, but the fires.
[With] no wind, clouds of smoke were perched on top of each burning building. In between the buildings, perversely, as if Mother Nature were laughing at our idiocy, we could see the stars.
Those fires also burn a synagogue in a remote Austrian town in The Lost Letter, the 2017 novel by Jillian Cantor – a novelist who focuses on 20th-century history. Cantor’s novel follows Zackheim’s in looking back over decades, seeking emotional engagement with distant tragedy.
All the toys in the world
Günter Grass was ten on Kristallnacht, the same age as Oskar in his novel The Tin Drum (1952). The Jewish toyshop that supplied Oskar’s drum was burned down that night and the shop owner killed himself – “he took along with him all the toys in the world”. A character akin to Grass appears in John Boyne’s 2018 novel A Ladder to the Sky. In his teens Grass joined the Waffen-SS – a fact he kept secret until old age.
In Boyne’s book, the central character, a writer, took actions after Kristallnacht that destroyed a Jewish family. Like Grass he contained the story for decades. Of course, the true storyteller must share and not conceal stories. Wolf showed us how fear was a barrier against compassion. Boyne makes us face the consequences of overcoming such fear.
Once people would have said Kristallnacht was unimaginable in a modern context. But they were wrong – do Roma feel safe from the actions of the Hungarian State today? How safe are the Rohingya in Myanmar, Mexicans in the US, the Windrush generation in the UK?
Through fiction we can enter history, encounter suffering and exercise compassion. We close our book, awakened. Fiction sharpens memory for when history repeats itself.
As students prepare to go back to school, it’s estimated that between 10% to 16% of those aged from five to 16 years will have reading difficulties such as dyslexia and inadequate comprehension skills.
All teaching makes particular assumptions about how students tend to learn. For these students, regular literacy teaching will be insufficient. They need alternative teaching pathways.
Despite numerous policies, such as the Literacy and Numeracy National Partnership, and the A$706.3 million spent between 2008-2014 on reading programs to support students, literacy underachievement continues to plague Australian education, suggesting that current interventions are not working for all students. Teachers don’t necessarily know how to teach these children.
The problem is not a lack of research about what works. It is more the lack of guidance for teachers and schools in how to use this knowledge in teaching.
School leaders are responsible for making definitive decisions about educational provision in their schools. They need clear and explicit guidelines on how to choose effective literacy interventions that will work for these students.
Why do some students struggle with reading?
Reading comprehension is a complex process. Students have difficulty comprehending text for several reasons:
Some don’t know the sounds that make up spoken words (phonological and phonemic skills) or have difficulty saying letter patterns accurately (phonic skills). These lead to word reading and spelling difficulties, or dyslexia.
Some lack the vocabulary and other oral language knowledge that scaffolds reading comprehension.
Others have a relatively poor self-concept as a reader. They believe they can’t learn to read and disengage from literacy.
Some students don’t transfer what they learn about reading some texts to other texts.
Any interventions, then, need to cater for this range of differences.
Research suggests that reading comprehension could be improved by teaching:
- explicitly phonological and phonemic skills
- phonic skills
- how to improve reading fluency
- ways to enhance vocabulary
- how to visualise and summarise what a text says while reading, and generate questions
- how to use various idea-organising techniques such as concept mapping to link the ideas in the text.
Teaching the sound patterns and how to say written works is particularly useful for dyslexic difficulties.
Interventions that work
The Early Reading Intervention Knowledge (ERIK) program is an example of how research can be used to develop school-based interventions.
Developed from a large research analysis of the causes of early reading difficulties in the early 2000s, it has been used in grade 1-5 in Catholic primary schools in Victoria.
Students are allocated to one of three parallel intervention pathways depending on their reading difficulty profile; a phonological pathway, an orthographic pathway for students who have phonological skills and difficulty reading letter clusters, and an oral language pathway. Students can move between pathways.
A recent evaluation, available for Catholic Education Melbourne, showed that the three intervention pathways are very effective in improving the reading outcomes of students who underachieve or are at risk of future reading and writing difficulties.
Effect sizes were calculated for eight reading profiles, based on whether the students began with difficulties in one or more of reading comprehension, accuracy or rate. Students with difficulties in two or more areas improved in excess of two years in comprehension and in accuracy. The intervention usually lasted between one and two terms.
Younger students benefited more from the phonological and orthographic interventions while their older peers benefited more from the oral language intervention.
Findings such as these have implications for schools.
How to select the right program for your school
When a school leader is selecting a program to help improve students’ literacy outcomes they first need to ask:
- Does it match the range of ways in which my students underachieve? Students need a program that accommodates their reason for underachievement.
- Does it have multiple parallel literacy learning pathways, and doesn’t assume that one size fits all?
- Does it have explicit teaching procedures for each pathway? How comprehensive and systematic are they?
- Does it provide a means for identifying each student’s literacy learning profile and for deciding the pathway for optimal progress for that student? Or does it assume that all students will best progress by following the same pathway?
- What research supports the effectiveness of the intervention? Does it provide data that show that students of different reading profiles make progress using it?
- Is it based explicitly on an accepted research theory of how students learn to read? Many programs are not based on a rigorously and extensively researched theory.
These are key issues that any school leader who is thoughtfully and responsibly selecting a literacy intervention program in 2016 needs to answer.
Many know their current interventions do not work for all underachieving students. Decisions they make will live with their most academically vulnerable students for years to come. Education providers need to develop clear guidelines to ensure teachers are making appropriate decisions.
As parents, we know how important it is to read to our children. Many families include this as a regular part of the bedtime routine.
While we feel confident this is contributing to our child’s literacy development,
new research shows that this nightly routine could also be used to help improve maths skills.
How reading can help your child learn maths
The study by researchers in the US gave 587 students in year 1 (between 6 and 7 years old) tablets featuring an app with short passages to read with their parents.
Parents would read these passages with their child and then answer questions based on the text. Families used the app on average 4 times a week between the Autumn and Spring of 2013-14.
One group read stories which contained a mathematical focus, which allowed children and their parents to discuss maths in a natural way and complete simple problems together.
Each passage came with five questions ranging in difficulty from preschool to fifth-grade level and covered topics including counting and arithmetic, fractions, geometry and probability.
There was also an additional bank of questions for families who wished to explore the passage further. Families could complete as many questions as they were comfortable with after reading the story.
A second, comparison group read the same passage with the specific maths content removed and answered questions which focused on recalling facts, inferring information and spelling.
The results were overwhelming.
The students were tested before and at the end of the study and those who read the maths stories, adapted from the Bedtime Math app, showed significant improvement in their overall mathematics learning during the year.
When comparing the children in each group who used the app most frequently, the study saw a three month advancement in maths achievement for those who read the maths-focused stories.
Helping parents boost their confidence in maths
Research shows that parents tend to place more importance on language learning than on mathematical development when their children are young. A reason for this could be that parents don’t feel as comfortable with teaching maths, compared to literacy.
But research shows that when parents are stressed about maths, their children learn less mathematics over the school year and can also develop the same negative feelings towards the subject.
Children who feel anxious about maths are also less likely to engage in the classroom and will avoid mathematical tasks.
This avoidance leads to missed learning opportunities and a greater sense of potential failure.
Once the cycle has begun, it can be hard to redirect this momentum.
While the research focused on stories designed for an electronic device, the findings highlight some key points for parents.
Sharing stories with a mathematical focus, and the discussions which are then created, can contribute to an increase in achievement at school.
For parents who are struggling with their own mathematical anxieties, this comes as welcome news. The study goes on to suggest that this sharing of stories and discussing maths with our children, can help parents become less anxious in this space.
The federal Government recently committed $6.4m to support the development of maths resources for students. This forms a part of the government’s agenda to improve the teaching of science, technology, engineering and maths subjects in our schools.
So how can parents use books to help improve their child’s maths skills? Here are some suggestions:
Reading tips for parents
Read books with mathematical concepts to your children.
In some books the content is obvious – we are all familiar with Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Try reading these as well:
- 365 Penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental
- Leaping lizards by Stuart Murphy
- Math for all seasons: Mind-stretching Maths Riddles by Greg Tang
- My Grandmother’s Clock by Geraldine McCaughrean
Consider asking your local librarian for some other ideas. Look for books with amusing pictures and colourful illustrations – we know how this attracts children to read.
Talk about the book with your child, as you would with any other story.
The mathematical elements will naturally come into the conversation and should be encouraged – this will help children to see maths as part of everyday life.
By simply including books which include mathematical concepts in nighttime routines, parents can feel more confident that they are contributing to the mathematical development of their child outside the classroom at the same time as creating a less stressful environment for discussing mathematics.
Kylie will be taking part in an Ask An Expert Q&A on Twitter from noon to 1pm on Thursday, November. Head over to Twitter and post your questions about learning and teaching maths using #AskAnExpert.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at apps that help you keep track of your personal library.
The link below is to an article reporting on how Elizabeth’s Bookshops in Australia are using a novel idea to help it sell books – blind dates with books.
The link below is to an article that may be of great help to people who have books in need of some care – how to bind a book.
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