Six Questions for Alec Williams, author of Get Everyone Reading :: NEWS

Six Questions for Alec Williams, author of Get Everyone Reading

06 March 2021 Share

Q&A with Cathal Coyle, Publications Co-ordinator (SLA)

Alec’s guide looks at specific ways that schools can help foster reading for pleasure, including reading role models, bringing books alive by reading aloud and storytelling, partnering with parents, using technology, and – of course – creating a school library space that’s a powerhouse for reading. The guide’s short, punchy sections are to give you information (and get you thinking!) about each aspect of reading for pleasure.

I recently spoke with Alec about his experiences and views on reading, libraries, and storytelling...

1) Your background is in libraries and storytelling – the perfect blend for this publication. How can school libraries better promote reading for pleasure?

The short answer – for teachers and librarians – is by reading this new guide! I’d argue that they need a good school library though, to make the breakthrough, because a school library, as the guide says, is a ‘powerhouse for reading’. Children may learn to read in the classroom, but in the school library… they learn to be readers! 

The first thing to ensure, of course, is that your school has a school library, because one in eight schools don’t. Then appoint or designate a librarian; create and maintain a lively stock of books (and more!); and finally make sure the library’s used: preferably in the centre of the school, certainly on a traffic path, open all the time, with timetabled visits giving time to talk about and choose books. Children should feel that it’s ‘their space’, where they can lounge and sprawl, look at pictures and words, listen to audio books – and to each other, recommending books! 

‘Take the library out of the library’, too. Signs, displays, book trolleys, pictures and videos around the school will show the school values reading, and direct children to the library to find more. The library in turn can get even more books via the school library service, and it can publicise the public library, where children can read in their own time too, becoming adult readers. 

People notice good libraries, and the work of librarians. Parent Tom Burns wrote recently: ‘This librarian had known my daughter for less than an hour and yet she’d already got my kid excited about reading AND matched her with an incredibly insightful book recommendation… on the first day of school! That’s impressive.’ He added: ‘School librarians aren’t gatekeepers. They give kids the keys and teach them how to use the gate.’

2) You have visited many countries to participate in storytelling events, what has been your favourite event – and why?

Yes, I’ve visited over thirty countries, mostly for the British Council but also for IFLA, conferences, and to individual schools.  I’ve done a variety of things: talks to teachers, training, consultancy work on library design – and as you say, storytelling.  Some countries asked me to do scary ‘demonstration storytelling’, with up to twenty teachers sitting in at the back! I remember being humbled by the distances teachers had travelled to one of my workshops (at Nizwa, in the mountains of Oman), and I have happy memories of using early videoconferencing kit in Kuala Lumpur to do ‘two-country storytelling’ with Tokyo and then with New Delhi. My audience in Malaysia joined in with the ‘plop!’ refrain, and then 3 seconds later the Indian children shouted ‘Plop!’ in their turn. The hardest sell with my wife was a twelve-country visit including Iraq, but as you’ll see from this Baghdad picture, I took some UK picture books with me!

3) Do you think that Stephen Krashen’s concept of ‘Free Voluntary Reading’ to promote reading and literacy development would be effective in U.K. schools?

For those who may not have read Krashen, it’s fair to say that Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) is effectively the kind of reading for pleasure I write about in the guide. ‘For school-age children,’ he writes, ‘FVR means no book report, no questions at the end of the chapter, and no looking up every vocabulary word. It means putting down a book you don't like and choosing another one instead. It is the kind of reading highly literate people do obsessively all the time.’ 

You can see in the guide that my definition of reading for pleasure is very similar, and I think it would certainly be effective, but this is a contentious area. Krashen’s view on phonics don’t square with the UK government’s current stance, and teachers’ natural (and instilled) inclination to use book reviews, tests and questions mean that UK schools (especially those now embedded in extrinsic motivation schemes) may hesitate to use the Krashen approach wholesale. But a school library will help to shift the balance a little, and the more books children read, the greater the chances of ‘free reading’ (not all of them need accounting for!). His ‘putting down and choosing another one’ is, of course, an echo of Daniel Pennac’s ‘Rights of the Reader’, which I refer to in the guide.

4) Why do you feel that reading is “unique”?

I think it’s important that advocates of recreational reading highlight its uniqueness, because of course there are other artforms and cultural experiences that offer benefits too. Audiences of teachers celebrating books amongst each other need to remember that a) there’s a world going by out there with thousands of children not reading at all, and b) film and TV are actually the predominant 21st century media. 

Well-made examples of each of these offer a lot to children, as they do to adults, but the vision is ultimately someone else’s.  As I say to children: ‘You can watch the adventure happening to Angelina Jolie or Will Smith – or read the book, and have it happen to you!’ In contrast to fast-paced movies, reading gives you time to think, which is why it’s so good for developing empathy. And there are so many books to choose from; so many reading avenues to explore!

5) How important are reading ‘role models’ to children – i.e. Teachers, parents, even celebrity readers? What extra ingredient do they provide?

I think this is a key point, which is why I confront the reader with it on the guide’s first page! Sam McBratney’s view that ‘This connection [between] reading to children and making children into readers is one that I don’t buy. I think children are readers by temperament’ may sometimes work (it did for me, but I knew reading mattered to my parents), but there are now so many homes without a book, and where children rarely see parents reading, that the idea of adults choosing to read, and enjoying reading, needs to be introduced to them – along with notions like ‘girls can be scientists’ – and teachers and librarians can be the breakthrough agents who make that happen. Celebrities attract attention, but bringing in community members (local sportspeople, police, business leaders) to talk about reading is probably more important, because it shows children that there are readers all around them.

6) I am curious to know – what book or books are you reading now?

As a storyteller you’ll not be surprised to know that I’m a sucker for source material, and I’ve recently bought collections of folktales from Romania, Lithuania, and Poland. Children from these backgrounds can ‘glow’ when they hear a story from their parents’ home country, and white British children need to realise that there’s a whole world of stories out there, many of them shared. 

Children’s books I’ve enjoyed recently include Boy in the Tower (Polly Ho-Yen), The Matilda Effect (Ellie Irving), Orphans of the Tide (Struan Murray), Seven Ghosts (Chris Priestley), and my nearest author Tom Palmer’s D-Day Dog

On my ‘children’s books to read’ pile are The Haunting of Aveline Jones (Phil Hickes), A Girl called Owl (Amy Wilson), The Beast and The Bethany (Jack Meggitt-Phillips), and Check Mates (Stewart Foster). Adults should read adult authors too; in my case recent reads by Stephen Fry, Terry Pratchett, Bill Bryson, and Woody Allen (have you read his ‘Complete Prose’?), along with authors I return to like the wonderful James Thurber. And my Desert Island book choice would be a complete Charles Dickens.

It's been a pleasure talking with you, Alec. Thank you!

Cathal Coyle

Get your free copy of Get Everyone Reading, a primer on reading for pleasure in schools, here!