Excerpts from my address to parents, staff and children of Whitestone School on Speech night

Our guest speaker at Speech Night last year was Bryony Rheam, an old girl of this school and in her own right, an author.  Her address on ‘Reading’ was so thought provoking that we have decided to reproduce the relevant sections in two parts in The Shrike’s Call.  The first of these follows : –

“John and I worked in Zambia for seven years at two international schools.   They are run very differently to Zimbabwean schools and are marked by a general laxity in manners and demeanour and an attitude of ‘if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it.’  All this leads to, I’m afraid, is an atmosphere of boredom and apathy.  And, if the pupils are difficult to motivate, the parents are worse!  They can’t pick their children up after 3, they can’t help with play costumes and they feel that events like sports day should take place during school hours so they don’t have to give up a Saturday morning once a year. Personally,I’m tired of pandering to the particular whims of pupils and parents. So, no, I’m not here to inspire you at all.  I’m not here to make suggestions, I’m here to tell you what to do.

I’m primarily a secondary English teacher, but I also do a large amount of remedial work and this tends to be with younger children.  My first question to parents is always: ‘Does your child read?’  I don’t think I have ever received the answer, ‘Yes’.  The truth of the matter is that children who are readers are learners and children who are readers write well.  These things are inextricably linked.
I also have parents who tell me they don’t know why their son or daughter doesn’t read.  ‘We read,’ they say.  ‘We love reading.  We read all the time.’  I have had parents tell me they read the complete works of Shakespeare or Dickens at the age of 8 or how they read Dostoyevsky in the original Russian while on their Grade 7 school trip and they are therefore even more stumped as to why their beloved child prefers flicking through endless channels on television to following in their learned footsteps.

Many parents leave the education of their children up to other people.  I’m sure some of you are thinking: ‘Yes, isn’t that what we pay all these school fees for?’ Yet education begins at home, way before your child is of school going age and it continues into the after school hours of family life.  Ask yourself this – how much time do you spend together as a family?  Do you sit down to at least one meal together a day?  Do you talk to your children?  Do you ask them what sort of a day they’ve had?  Or do you sit in separate rooms, each on your device, your food on your lap? You will be amazed, shocked even, to discover how many children – and I’m talking about children at private schools – experience very little of family life.  Some children don’t even live with their parents, or even their relatives.  They are looked after by maids and gardeners, people to whom you pay the minimum wage.  Materially, even physically, your child may be adequately looked after – but what about emotionally?  What sort of intellectual input are they receiving?  More and more, teachers are under increasing pressure to make up for what is lacking at home.

What I find increasingly through my remedial work is that children with learning difficulties are often, but not always, suffering from some sort of emotional problem.  I’d even go as far as saying that the emotional difficulty is what is stopping them from progressing.  These children may be suffering from anything from not enjoying the school they are at, to experiencing bullying to a divorce or a death in the family.  However, sometimes the reason is as simple as parents not having enough time to share with their children.  They buy them things: toys, games, phones – but have no intention of sitting down and playing with them.  It’s very easy to put the TV on while you’re working or cooking or whatever you’re doing and lumping your child in front of it.  It’s the perfect babysitter.

Every parent wants to give their children the best and often we think the best is what we didn’t have in our own childhoods.  Particularly in Africa, with its growing middle class, this often means televisions or the latest gadget or phone.  We think that if we are able to provide our children with their OWN television set, then we must have really made it in life, because we never had that.  We are also sometimes worried about the amount of technology that our children are subjected to, but tend to think, what else can we do?  This is the world today.  If we take away the television set or the phone, my child will fall behind somehow in comparison to their peers.  So although we may not like something, we go along with it.

I consider myself very lucky in life for many reasons but I will share two in particular with you this evening. The first is ZBC.  Yes, you did hear me correctly. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. When I was growing up, there was only ZBC.  Now I know what you’re thinking – how on earth could ZBC be a blessing?  Some of you here have probably never even watched ZBC!  However, I am sure there are those of you who can look back with fond memories on the days of Cheers!, The A Team, McGyver and Magnum P.I.  What about Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest and Big League Soccer on a Sunday evening?  One TV channel. O.K., two for those in Harare.   My other blessing was that I had a mother who read to me.  Every single night my sisters and I had a story.  She either read to us from a book, or made up stories which we would also add to.  We went to the Book Centre with her and we would point out all the books on our wish list for birthdays and Christmas.  I remember them wrapped in shiny paper under the Christmas tree, the smell of the pages of the new books and the sense of brimming anticipation at the hours of reading ahead. Our house was full of books; we were taught to love and respect them.    Both my parents read and many of the books that were read to us were classics and favourites that they themselves had read as children.

Reading to your children creates a special bond.  Perhaps you’re in their bedroom, they’re ready for bed, winding down: the atmosphere is one of quiet and calm.  You look at pictures, you answer questions about the story, perhaps you predict what’s going to happen in the end.  There’s this shared experience which doesn’t happen with television which also tend to be very loud and noisy.  You’ll find children like to snuggle up to you; it’s not the same as sending them to bed to read by themselves.

One of the biggest mistakes is thinking that children won’t understand something.  Children understand far more of the world than we give them credit for.  It also surprises me that many parents will say that their child is too young for books, but will happily sit them down in front of the television to watch often highly inappropriate content matter. We all know how easily very young children imitate the adults around them.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced that awful moment when our two year old swears profanely at the cat in the front of Granny and Grandad using exactly the same words that we used when we kicked it out the back door the previous evening. Why is it that we think that books are meant for when children get older or when they themselves can read?

You can actually read to newborn babies; you can even read to a baby before it is born.    Obviously, they won’t understand a story, but they understand tone, the way you speak to them and they will feel comforted.  They will therefore associate reading with a sense of well-being and thus develop a positive attitude towards books.  Many children who don’t like reading are those who have been put off it, and this is usually because they see reading as a task.  They associate it with school.  Now if you’re not a strong reader and maybe you stutter and stumble a bit or find long words difficult to say, you’ll associate reading with a feeling of embarrassment from having to read aloud and having others laugh at you.  Class readers are often quite boring and predictable and don’t necessarily stimulate interest in reading for its own sake.

But if a child is read TO, those pressures disappear.  They can sit back and listen and enjoy the story.  Adults can use a range of tones in their telling of the story, or they might use different voices for different characters.  The atmosphere they create is generally far more exciting than that of the child who is just trying to get past the words, plodding along, and missing the story.

If you read to your children, they can develop their reading skills and their vocabulary.  You can obviously read them harder books than they can, so you are always pushing those boundaries for them, otherwise they will get stuck with only the books they can read and these tend to be very basic. They can ask what certain words mean and you’ll be surprised how easily they pick up and remember them.  By the time a child is five, they should be able to be introduced to books with chapters, where they have to wait for the next installment every night.  This improves their attention skills; they have to remember what happened the previous night and they come to realise that a story can go on and take various twists and turns.

This gives you the opportunity to talk about the story at other times, perhaps at a meal time or in the car on the way to school.  What do you think is going to happen next?  This helps develop a child’s imagination and create their own stories, which is something that TV doesn’t do.  It doesn’t allow you to imagine characters and plot differently to what is shown on the screen.  Everything is given to you and is therefore what is termed passive learning.

First and foremost, we must remember that the most important thing we can give our children is our time.  Children thrive when they know they are the centre of their parents’ lives.  When reading, you’re taking time out from your busy schedule and sitting down and saying, I have time for you.  Children love routine.  If you set a time to read together every day, they will look forward to this and learn to appreciate it.  As much as possible, don’t upset this routine once you’ve started it because it doesn’t work for you.  It’s like breaking a promise.  If your children are able to join a library, ask them what they are reading or go with them and make suggestions.  It means a lot to a child if you can pass on to them your love of a particular author or character.  Even with older children – and here I mean teenagers – read what they are reading.  Too often we assume the teenager’s world is one that we can’t share or that we will find nothing of interest in – but you can save yourself a lot of hassle with bad behaviour if you make an attempt to share that world.”

Part Two will be published in the next Shrike’s Call.
From The Shrikes' Call, the newsletter of Whitestone School


  1. Thanks Bryony a real eye opener definitely gives one food for thought..


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