Exclusive: Parents should read aloud to teenagers, says girls’ schools chief

Combat the rise of attention-sapping apps such as Snapchat by reading weighty Victorian tomes with your teens

Parents should read long, “demanding” books to their teenage offspring to help them build “intellectual stamina” in the social media age, a leading figure in girls’ education has said.

Reading aloud to children should continue into their teenage years, to ease them through the “slow opening chapters” of big 19th-century novels, according to Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust.

Helping young people access these weighty tomes would counteract the shorter attention spans resulting from internet use and apps such as SnapChat, she told TES.

Reading for pleasure

Ms Fraser, who is a former managing director of Penguin Books UK, said that reading to teenagers would also help counterbalance the “dropping off” in reading for pleasure at around age 14, she said, as young people become distracted by public exams and adolescent life.

Perennial favourites of the GCSE syllabus, such as Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby, were there mainly “because they are incredibly short” and therefore easily accessible, she said.

But young people needed to read the heftier works of the literary canon, she said, including Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations.

Read aloud to teens

Her plea for parents to read to teenagers comes shortly after schools minister Nick Gibb and publishers Penguin Classics published a list of 100 classic titles that secondary pupils should read.

The list covers everything from David Copperfield to The Mill on the Floss to The Three Musketeers.

Ms Fraser told TES in an interview: “These books are part of who we are, but they are also a test of intellectual stamina, it’s one of those things that’s a bit sad… when you look at some of the books set for GCSE English, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, the main reason they are there is they are incredibly short.

“The one thing I think parents can do – Victorian novels start slowly, they don’t get you into the plot on page one, so actually [they should] read aloud to children, right into their teenage [years]. I remember my husband reading The Moonstone to my daughters when they were 12 and 14 and they absolutely loved it, it’s a gripping tale.

“In an age when attention spans are under threat, children are used to being interrupted every eight seconds by a Snapchat or Instagram message; even adults in their offices [are suffering from the same problem].

“Somebody was talking about young employees having a very short attention span, and it’s good to develop a good attention span. There’s always work where you have to think for longer than eight seconds, quite a lot longer.

“It’s a counterbalance to that, it’s about building up intellectual stamina.”

“Parents can help by at least kicking them off, by helping them through those slow early chapters of the Victorian novel”

Acquiring the reading habit

Paul Clayton, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, agreed with Ms Fraser. He said: “Research suggests that acquiring the reading habit – reading for pleasure and leisure – has more beneficial impact on a young person’s life chances than anything else.

“It’s also been proven that parents – or other family members – reading to their children at an early change can help children to acquire the reading habit.

“As children get older, they clearly still benefit from their parents taking an interest in their learning; and reading together and discussing literature, perhaps needs to be seen in that light.”

This is an edited article from the 26 February edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week’s TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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