Readers in Their Element

The first ‘reader in their element’ is the owner of this blog! I grew up in Western Australia’s central wheat-belt, several miles from the nearest source of any reading material. Over the years that changed dramatically and I’ve not only read quite a range of literature, I’m also a writer currently head down in my first contemporary fiction novel. Add in poetry and family history and the reading-writing circle is complete. Now living in Perth’s Darling Ranges you will find me avoiding summer’s heatwaves and winter’s cold snaps curled up in my favourite reading nooks, devouring new publications by my favourite authors.

My post as a guest on Louise Allan’s, Writer’s in the Attic highlights more of my background.
A reading nook anytime, day or night.

Why this obsession with reading?

At an early age I cannot recall being surrounded by any reading material at all. Up to the age of seven, my childhood was spent in a cottage, a tiny four-roomed home built from a shed on my grandfather’s farm. If I read anything then it remains a mystery as there was no money to spare: I recall no newspapers, books or magazines in the home.

However, my deeply religious grandmother would sit at our bedside and sing to us before leaving to go home after a visit: one hymn remains clear in my mind to this day. Her influence was that of reading the Bible – a book that gave instruction on how to live her life and that generated and supported her beliefs. My first ‘how to’ book from the great canon of literature still influences my life to some degree, though I heard it, rather than read it – rather like excerpts from an audio-book! Hearing the written word had a profound, positive influence on my ability to comprehend what I later learned to read.

In our second home my parents’ circumstances changed somewhat. My brothers and I grew up surrounded by books. I was ten when we moved the sixteen miles further inland to my parent’s property and into our new home. During my years there I acquired so many books and comics I was like Alice in Wonderland! I’d go down the proverbial rabbit hole into worlds created by wonderful writers. Among the many worlds I visited were those of Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna which were given to me by an aunt as her daughter had outgrown the series and long since left home. I still own those copies. My post as a guest on Louise Allan’s, Writer’s in the Attic highlights more of my background.

Much later, my mother bought June, a comic, for me to enjoy. Was it each week or each month? No matter. It was a treat beyond belief. My brother became familiar with the Phantom. We were fortunate as children to have our parents foster a love of reading.

At night I’d sit up and read till my eyes fell out of my head! Mum’s voice admonished me to turn out the light as she hit the sack. Once I heard silence ring out across our home, I’d sneak the light back on and keep reading!

Coming home on the school bus my brother and I had to bring home the loaf of bread and the newspaper. So we grew up with printed matter at the table. Dad, like many fathers, sat at the head of the table, paper open, after a long day’s work. Once the meal started it was laid aside, and afterwards, he might pick it up and read it in the lounge room. That was before television.

When Dad died, Mum gave us the biography he was reading on Sean Connery. He enjoyed learning about other’s lives. So do I. Thing is, he was reading till the time he left us. Now that’s a testimony to the joy of reading.

Why are these seemingly insignificant events of importance to me?  

I grew up surrounded by the love of literature, of reading. It was part of my everyday existence. It still is.

 Life without books is unimaginable to me! I live with books in every room – bookcases lining my walls, books I’ve bought and given away, books I discover in bookstores where the pages smell new; books I find with layers of dust on in second-hand stores, books I find on market stalls. Perhaps I ought to have been a librarian! It might have saved a lot of money!

Another reading nook in my home. This one is double sided and almost bowing under the load!

When I left home I studied to become a teacher. I majored in English Literature at the University of Western Australia. I felt like I’d found a foot hold, studying the great canon of literature, adding to the repertoire of that singular book, the Bible, and to my grandmother’s gift of a volume of Shakespeare’s plays.

When I qualified as a primary teacher I loved teaching reading. Apart from the rudimentary lessons in decoding the language, the joy of reading a story aloud to the children, as well as their delight in sharing what they read was the favourite part of my days. Much later, I took up high school teaching as the Reading Teacher. Yes, it was an actual title in secondary schools in Western Australia for many years. My superintendent virtually guaranteed my continuity with a comment along these lines – Literacy is something that will never die. We all need to be literate, to read. 

In that role, it took very little time for me to realise that I had been one of the most fortunate of children. In my thirteen years teaching in just one high school, I encountered too many secondary students who had slipped through primary school without mastering the skill of reading. Many had NO BOOKS or reading material in their homes. The profound impact on their lives had already begun.

I took much joy – and experienced a lot of pain too – in helping teens with little background in reading acquire skills in reading for understanding; reading for real life situations (recipes, job application forms; how to make a kite – a great fun project) and the crème de la crème of reasons for reading – reading for pleasure. They listened to me read Storm Boy and many other novels. They talked about books they read. They struggled to write their own stories for each other to read and for me to read aloud to their classmates.

As well as those lessons, in my general English classes I dared introduce Shakespeare to a relatively young group of students who were astounded that they could understand and respond to the classic. It reminded me to never underestimate the power of words. I was passing on what I imbibed as a child from my role models, my grandmother and my parents and from my peers – the joy of being read to and the joy of reading for pleasure.

My grandmother gave me Shakespeare’s complete works when I was quite young.

A little more ‘proof’ on the value of reading

As a Reading Teacher I was required to measure the ‘reading age’ of all incoming Year 8 students. My colleague and I ran standardised tests (I know, a whole new topic!) which we used as a benchmark. Curiously, I found these surprisingly accurate when I became more closely acquainted with some of the students in my own classes. An age-appropriate score didn’t always guarantee they understood everything they read, but it did mean they often had a good grasp of the act of reading and comprehending much of what they chose to read.

Without going into the whys and wherefores of such tests, I used these as a benchmark to closely monitor a Year 9 class for a full school year. This class read for 10-15 minutes at the start of every English class. I ensured that every child had reading material for each session. A box of books to choose from sat on the front desk for errant students or for those who finished their current novel and didn’t have their next one to hand. Some reluctant readers grabbed a comic book which was allowed as not all students could get their heads into novels, even though that was preferred. Every student kept a reading log showing what they were reading with start and finish dates. I’d check these at some stage during the lesson. Keen readers were apparent as they usually showed a growing list of novels they’d read both at school and at home.

We had the library on board in our mutual love of literature. The wonderful librarians fostered the love of reading in collaborative programmes that supported the classroom. One popular recollection is RIBIT – Read in Bed, It’s Terrific. Students chose novels from those promoted by the librarians or by classmates who shared a quick spiel about their latest favourite book.

Over the year I noted a gradual shift in reading habits for some of the reluctant readers.

At the end of the year, we retested the students. Without exception, reading ages improved. The argument for natural growth according to age was factored in. Compared to the start of the year, reading every day – or at least every other day – showed that students improved in their ability to comprehend what they were reading.

Whether a direct result of this exercise or not, I also recall the entire lower secondary school being engaged in what was then the trend of silent reading for a few minutes after lunch. A compulsory ten minutes of Silent Reading was scheduled no matter what subject the students were actually in. Ideally, this was to be Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading, viz USSR – a huge ask in a large high school. I must add that we had admin on our side that year, too. Fellow former teachers, imagine – books out, bags tossed aside, no PA announcements and complete silence for ten whole minutes. Bliss!

It’s been a while since I’ve been in the classroom. Primary schools find it easier to practice a few minutes of silent reading straight after lunch. (I’ve taught in both sectors.) Practices come and go – I’ve absolutely no doubt about that. However, I will always maintain, with or without the reading tests as a measure, a person’s ability to read with comprehension improves with practice. (Please note, I do understand some people may have a disability that precludes this happening. I make no claims that it works for everyone, nor am I posing as any sort of authority.) As a general principle, the joy of reading, the marked pleasure I noted on the students’ faces as they shared what they read about, or chose to read aloud to their friends, remains with me many years after leaving the profession.

A shout out

In keeping with what I discovered all those years ago, and proof that my superintendent knew what he was saying, it gives me quite a thrill to learn about a voluntary project that is commencing in some of Perth’s high schools this year.  Tess Woods is taking her knowledge of reading and writing to underprivileged teens in three high schools. Go Tess!

Wrapping it up

I was fortunate. As a child I had a home that supported reading. I saw my father and mother read. I kept my light on for hours reading in bed. I believe reading begins at home and is critical in developing a child’s love for reading, one that will hopefully continue into adulthood.

I think of Louise Allan who cries any time she reads ‘Storm Boy’, and marvel at the power of words that have such an impact. (Check Laurie Steed’s The Gum Wall.)

As adults, you and I know how invaluable – and necessary – reading is. Every aspect of life depends on one’s own ability to read, and is affected by another’s ability to read. Imagine the importance of reading to that surgeon who’s about to operate on you!

Readers In Their Element

Reading for pleasure is, however, optional. In posting Readers in Their Element I aim to show fellow readers our uniqueness and our commonality in the beautiful act of reading. If you are a writer you know the essential act of reading is crucial to the craft – without readers there would be no purpose in the act of writing!

I’d love to hear from you and share where you like to read and what you are reading. A picture would be great and a few words to go with it would be terrific about 400-600 words or longer if your pen fancies!

You are most welcome to simply submit a snapshot with a caption or a short piece about any of the following ideas that get your writing juices flowing:

  • a favourite reading location (or more) – with a photo would be great!
  • a favourite bookstore in your area
  • how you like to read eg. feet up with a cuppa
  • why you read
  • what you like to read –  genres, ‘how to’ books, nonfiction.
  • your latest read
  • your current read
  • inspirational reading
  • any other aspect about reading that inspires, comforts or gives you pleasure.

Photos highlighting any of the above are most welcome.

To highlight you please provide a short bio and links to your website/blog and publications of your own – great reading material for fellow readers!

Please contact me on my web page http://www.esdunn.com.au/contact/  to submit your photo or article. I will send you a small gift if your submission is published on my site.

Above all, thank you for taking part in sharing the value and joys of reading.

RITE - in front of the winter fire
A winter reading nook in front of the fire.

ES Dunn - Susan is a writer based in Perth's Darling Range, Western Australia. Her love for writing began as a child and is a life-long passion. Susan is also passionate about reading and attributes much of her learning from the wonderful literature she keeps discovering.

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