What’s wrong with what he’s reading?

There’s no denying that modern books for young children are entertaining and engaging. Stories about children with real problems  who have a magical experience of some type often seems to make for hilarious reading and have gone a long way in successfully promoting reading amongst children and young people.

That really can’t be overestimated.

However, as I wrote about in my earlier blog ‘8 ways to promote reading to secondary school children,’ what happens when these books no longer provide sufficient challenge to continue to develop their reading skills? The answer is that they stop moving forward and, in some cases, start to go backwards.

To make sure that our children are moving forwards, we need to be encouraging them to read stories with more complicated story lines and more sophisticated vocabulary.

Whilst there are many modern books that provide challenge, they often inclide content that may not be appropriate for a ten or eleven year old! Introducing classical literature to your child is a good option for the following reasons: the language is challenging, but not impossible; generally, the content is appropriate; they teach about the time they were written, increasing children’s historical and cultural knowledge and finally, they are great works of literature that will give your child real joy.

And as well as all of those benefits, a pre-20th century classic is a compulsory element of GCSE English Literature and if they are not familiar with language from this period of time, they will really struggle.

However, as I learned, you can’t just give your child a copy of ‘Oliver Twist’ and expect everything to go swimmingly! This would be like deciding to run a marathon one day, when the most you’ve ever run is three miles!

So what can you do?

These suggestions are ideally for pre-secondary school children, with the aim of eventually enabling them to confidently read unabridged classical English Literature.

  • Start with children’s classics: these use 19th Century language, but include story lines that interest children: ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ or ‘Jungle Book’ are examples. Whereas books about human suffering (Dickens and Hardy) may be a bit too much for a ten year old.
  • Read with them: it’s a great idea to try reading a classic as an ongoing bedtime story over a couple of weeks. This will enable you to talk about the language and setting and aid your child’s unerstanding. This is also an opportunity to relate the character(s) to your child’s own experiences which will go a long way towards reducing the chasm that can psychologically exist for children with these types of novels.
  • Audio books: we listen to a lot of audio books in the car. Some of these are Julia Donaldson and Roald Dahl; some are non-fiction and some are children’s classics. I do this because I want the stories and the language to seem as normal to my boys as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (for example). This can be quite inexpensive. We’ve found lots of ours in charity shops and at car boot sales where they are cheaper than books! We have also got a lot of CDs from offers in various Newspapers.
  • Films: I’m not someone who thinks that the film replaces the book, and I suggest this with the cautionary note to check that the film is true to the book, but to allow your child to focus on the language, showing a good film version of a book can help your child engage with the story so that the reading becomes easier.
  • Use abridged versions: 19th Century books can often tend towards long explanations and descriptions which children are likely to find hard to focus on. An abridged version will cut a lot of this out and focus on the action.
  • Model how to do it: I don’t read classic after classic. I like to mix up what I read: sometimes I’ll read something easy and frivolous, other times I’ll choose something a little more high brow and if I want to work hard, I might choose a classic. If it’s been a while since I’ve read a 19th Century text then in takes me a while to adapt to the language. Sometimes, I might need re-read a page to make sure I’ve grasped what I’ve read. Sometimes, I might need to look up a word that I don’t know. I think it’s really important that children and young people see this: they see the hard work – and the value; they see how we decode and they see (hopefully) our enjoyment of the experience. That goes a long way!
  • Finally: if you have pre-school children then you could try using The Beatrix Potter collection as a very early introduction to 19th Century language.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I guess it’s been quite a serious one this time, but I hope that it helps and that your child sees the improvement in their reading and discovers a love for these fantastic stories!

Happy reading.