Developing literacy and attracting your students’ attention

In this week’s blog, Tougher Minds Head of Education Andrew Foster recounts a recent uplifting experience and outlines how it underscores what we know about the power of “the visual” to capture young people’s attention.

“Bethany, your friends are here…”

Silence. No response.

“Bethany! Come on… they’re waiting.”

Still silence and now Bethany’s mum was becoming a little worried. Normally the time between Bethany’s friends arriving and Bethany bounding down the hall would be a matter of milliseconds.

When she opened the bedroom door, she was relived but still bemused. Bethany was there alright… but utterly engrossed in a book.

I was gratified but not entirely surprised when I heard this story. The book in question was Maus by Art Spiegelman and I, as Head of History, had in conjunction with the English and RS departments bought a copy for every pupil in Year 9. Bethany had previously declared herself a non-reader but here she was, devouring a Pulitzer Prize-winning work.

Maus- the award winning graphic novel, which examines the Holocaust from one family's perspective.

Maus- the award winning graphic novel, which examines the Holocaust from one family’s perspective.

The growth of graphic novels and indeed graphic non-fiction as a serious branch of modern literature should give heart to teachers and parents that feel their ambitions of encouraging children to read more widely, or at all, are doomed in an age of Xbox and Snapchat. They are not just a gateway to traditional prose, they are a medium entirely worthy of our attention in themselves.

Attention. This is the resource in demand and electronic devices are superb at commandeering it. The nature of graphic works mean that previously reluctant readers may be engaged where otherwise they would have been inclined to close the book after a few pages. Our brains evolved to pursue fast rewards and books like Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home do just that with their remarkable artwork – the visual is our first language after all.

We absolutely should aspire for all our children, be they sons, daughters or pupils to realise that to live without reading is not a personal choice equivalent to shunning broccoli or brussel sprouts but cutting oneself off from a tranche of human experience at least equivalent to all food and drink, music and cinema. And the more young people that develop their tastes to the point that they can derive pleasure from the greats the better, both from the traditional canon and writers from around the world. Literacy will help them in everything they do but most importantly is an end in itself.

If we are to achieve this more often than we currently do, we must be more creative. We must not just wring our hands when a young person does not fall at first sight for our treasured classics. No person will ever read all that has been written. So let us be relentlessly open-minded in our matchmaking between child and book.

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