The Ah-ha moment in reading

Dinoo Kelleghan

Jackie French's Flood is among 200 books on the Reading Australia website

Find “the magic book” for a child, author Jackie French urges teachers and parents, saying children need to be presented with reading material that lie outside what most adults consider to be suitable books for children.

“Forty per cent of Australian kids don’t meet international reading ability standards,” Ms French said. There are several reasons for this dysfunction but one factor, she said, is to be open-minded about what piques a child’s interest.

She offered Education a personal anecdote to illustrate the point. “Last week, I sat down with my 18-month-old grandson and tried to read to him. I’ve probably got one of the best collections of children’s stories and I’d been saving them up for this moment when I would hold my grandchild on my knee and read to him.

“He wasn’t interested in a single one of them — including mine. What he did ask me to show him was The Field Guide to Australian Birds.

“It’s a massive, heavy book, there’s no story in it, but he was absolutely fascinated by what he saw on the pages and what I read to him. He wanted to know about the birds, their habits and habitat. He wasn’t just interested in the pictures.

“We need to find the magic book for a child. The magic book is one that is so satisfying that they will pick up the next one and then the next. In my grandson’s case, we found the magic book in The Field Guide to Australian Birds, of all things, and ‘the next one’ for him was the book that stood next to it on the shelf, a book on mammals — he was fascinated by that one too.”

It was important to provide children with a choice of books, Ms French said, and applauded the new Reading Australia website that, for the first time, offers dedicated teaching resources for scores of Australian books, plays and poetry anthologies from K–12 from authors such as French, Tim Winton, Peter Carey and Pamela Allen.

There are 200 works on the site, chosen by the Australian Society of Authors’ Council. To date, resources for 62 have been written by teachers under the auspices of the Primary English Teaching Association of Australia, Australian Literacy Educators’ Association, the Australian Association for the Teaching of English and the English Teachers Association NSW. The project was organised by the Copyright Agency.

“It’s a wonderful program. Teachers do need to be provided with resource material,” said Ms French.

The Reading Australia initiative was prompted by Brian Johns, who spent 13 years on the Copyright Agency’s Board, including six years as chair. He is the former managing director of the ABC and SBS and publishing director of Penguin Books Australia,

“It became obvious to me and others that Australia’s great books were barely getting a look-in at schools,” Mr Johns said in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (“Our great stories need a place in the classroom”, January 20).

Teachers and leading authors worked on site

Many books were out of print but the more urgent reason was the availability of resources for teachers.

Reading Australia engaged teachers to develop resources and also asked leading authors such as Germaine Greer, Malcolm Knox and Geordie Williamson to write essays on many of the books, giving new and unique insights into the works.

French’s book Floods is on the Reading Australia website. “This is not a book that a child would reach for,” she said. “It is primarily a teaching book to show that you can go through hard things but not be defined by them.

Children, Ms French emphasised, could be attracted to reading through subjects that were dark or not readily comprehended. She recounted a time when she asked an audience of children aged six to eight years how many of them had watched Game of Thrones.

“Most of them had,” she said, “even though they couldn’t understand it. Those kids who like Game of Thrones are not going to be satisfied with Spot’s Rainy Day. That’s what I saw with my grandson. He wanted the mammals.”

Reading Australia: http://readingaustralia.com.au.