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A Child's Question to the Prime Minister

By Sarah Pietrzak - 20th July 2011

A few years back I had the privilege of teaching a literacy class in front of Mr John Prescott, the Acting Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. I was co-ordinating the running of a summer literacy camp for children who were deemed as 'struggling'. Having the camp swarming with various staff from Downing Street for days in advance, you can imagine what a high pressure occasion it was.

At the end of the lesson, the children were able to ask the Prime Minister questions. Clearly, the PM's staff felt quite safe in the knowledge that eleven and twelve year olds weren’t going to have anything overly toe-curling to say. And one child asked a question I won’t ever forget the answer to: "What was your favourite book to read as a child?"

And I saw this man, this powerful, important man’s face crumple a little and a look of genuine sadness move across it. He explained that he didn’t have a favourite book. In fact he didn’t particularly enjoy reading because he’d never been taught to enjoy it. His days as a politician meant he had reams and reams of reading material to get through,

Speaking to the children, John Prescott said reading was a gift - one that was usually given to them by parents or teachers, but unfortunately he hadn’t been passed on this gift by them. He said he hoped that the class they were in now would be the place they would receive their gift. Looking back, I hope it was too.

I had reason to think of that lesson recently, because in a few months we are going to be doing lots of travelling with our small children in tow. I know the advent of portable DVD players and ipods means that children can be happily occupied for long periods of time. But I also want our children to be critical and mindful thinkers as they grow - I don't want them to just sitting passively absorbing visual content. I want them to experience the physicality of turning pages and thinking about characters and setting - and getting them to figure out why that person did that, or how or where.

As a child I was a voracious reader - for my parents it meant they knew I’d be happily occupied as long as I had some books beside me. And so these holidays I vowed to pass on the gift of enjoying reading to my children. Instead of the usual prescribed books from school reading, we chatted about what books they really loved. I read sample chapters from various books to them. Interestingly, they both chose Enid Blyton books which says a great deal about the timeless quality of her fiction.

Together we made special passports which I signed and stamped after every reading session. I did it at the end of the day just before bedtime when it was quiet and calm in the house. We talked about what they'd read, and giggled and laughed at some of the 'funny words' used by the writer. And every night they would ask, no, they would beg to know when reading time was. Not only has their ability to read silently for sustained periods improved, I know I’ve given them a precious gift.

image freedigitalphotos.net Paul Gooddy

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