Jayne Dowle: Chapter and verse on the children who learn to love books

AT least, I had an answer when the teacher asked us what books we had read at home. "Famous Five and James Herbert's The Rats," I said. I was 10, and I don't think it was exactly the answer he was hoping for, but hey, this was Barnsley in the 1970s.

When I was seven, my mother had handed down her Famous Five collection to me with all the reverence of a religious ritual. Every year I added to my Enid Blyton stash at the Sunday School Anniversary, when we would be awarded some "improving" title for good attendance. I have no idea where James Herbert came into it, but I think someone had lent it to dad when he had to stay in hospital.

These, and a Reader's Digest reference tome called The Past All Around Us, which ignited my interest in history, were my formative texts. Soon, I discovered the delights of Catherine Cookson and Jilly Cooper. So we're not talking highbrow, and by no means did we have a vast library in our little terraced house.

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But we definitely had more than 20 books. And as new research from Nevada University suggests, children who have access to only 20 books at home will do better at school, regardless of their parents' own education. Those with 500 or more titles are likely to end up staying in education for up to three years longer than their peers. At last I have justification for my refusal to ever get rid of a book. Our house is full of them. I can never find the particular title I am looking for, but that's not the point.

I think it doesn't matter what you read as long as you do. Every book can tell a child something they didn't know, and show them that life doesn't have to be confined to their own four walls. My two friends, now both high-ranking public sector executives, escaped from the

reality of their childhood council estate by stalking the local librarian, desperate for tales from Malory Towers. They swear that these accounts of dormitory politics taught them all they know about ambition and teamwork.

My children are lucky. They know that if they want to find the answer to something, there is a book somewhere in the house which will tell them. Last weekend, in despair, my husband got the atlas out to decide once and for all where we are going on our family holiday.

It didn't work, but tracing out all those fantasy trips was a lot more inspiring than trailing round the travel agents.

I learnt a long time ago that "school reading books" are very different to the books that children might delve into for information or pleasure. Even my son's class-teacher admits that the reading scheme they use is "boring" and urges parents to encourage kids to read as widely as possible. I know that teachers are paid to – among other things – teach our children to read, but as this new research highlights, reading in school is only half the story. With the demands of the curriculum, there simply isn't time to inspire.

One friend was aghast to find that her seven-year-old son hadn't had his school reading book changed for six weeks.

When she asked why, the teacher told her that the teaching assistant had been off ill so individual reading practice had gone out of the window. Now imagine if that boy didn't have books at home. Quite possibly, he might never have turned a page for more than a month.

Do children in that situation even have any conception of what books are actually for? Michael Rosen, the Children's Laureate, says that many go through their formative years without actually reading a

single novel.

The days of teacher handing out a pile of books and leaving the class to read quietly for half an hour are long gone. Especially at primary level, worksheets are recognised as one of the fastest ways to impart information into children. This is great if you need to keep them focused on reaching certain levels and passing certain tests, but not so exciting if you actually want to teach them to think for themselves, and yes, day-dream a little.

So, sorry parents, but it's up to us to sort it. I do hope that the previous government's excellent initiative of handing out a treasure chest of books to every pre-school child survives the swingeing cuts in education. But after that, no parent has an excuse. And no parent, however disadvantaged, needs to spend a lot of money on books.

Indeed, when I last looked, library cards were still free. Every parent should realise that opening up just one book is opening up an

opportunity for their child. Open up more than 20 and you could open up the world.