Messages from Matilda

‘By the time she was three, Matilda had taught herself to read by studying the newspapers and magazines that lay about the house. At the age of four, she could read fast and well and she naturally began hankering after books.’ You may remember her father’s disgusted reaction: ‘A book?’ he said. ‘What do you want a flaming book for?’ You will, I feel fairly sure, recall the salvation offered by the local library, and Matilda’s learned discussions with the librarian, Mrs Phelps, about the finer points of the novels of Dickens and Hemingway.1 In just a few pages, Roald Dahl raises some of the most vital issues and challenges for children’s library staff about children’s reading and their role in supporting it. Not that I am suggesting that we should emulate Mrs Phelps, nor that Matilda’s reading development is in any way typical.

How do children learn to read, if Matilda is not the norm? If we know that, we can be clearer about appropriate strategies for encouraging children’s literacy. There is in fact no convenient norm. They all do it in different ways, not to mention at different speeds and at widely different ages. What can be said, however, is that nearly every child at entry into reception has already learnt a vast amount about the written word and its functions. Most of them will be able decipher a fair amount of writing. There are few three and four year-olds who cannot read their name, or tell you what the words on their favourite chocolate bar say. Many routinely read words that are important to them from the computer or television screen. For some the key to reading, whether they begin at this age or nearer to six, will be recognising the shape of words. ‘Asda’ looks very different to ‘Tesco’. Some learn by sounding them out. Many begin by chanting the words of their favourite book from memory, only later breaking down the recitation into pages, words and letters.

At this early stage, pictures give more clues than text. Reading is not just a matter of decoding - extracting the meaning of what is written is at least as important. And as library staff, we all know that the most vital message that children need if they are to become happy and successful readers is that reading is a source of pleasure. Many of us are also all too aware of the difficulty of helping parents and carers to this realisation. With the present media and political obsession with reading standards, feelings of anxiety and guilt are pretty hard to avoid, and their effects are often unfortunate. Whether we are reading to toddlers or to ten year-olds, our role in terms of modelling the skills and enjoyment of reading, in sharing an enthusiasm, even a passion, for books is a crucial one, for the Matildas of this world, and for the children who struggle with reading.

Many of the strugglers are boys (and it is no coincidence that Matilda is a girl). This is an issue that those of us involved in children’s librarianship need to face up to squarely. As several reports have made clear, and as many of us have observed, for large numbers of boys narrative fiction is of little or no interest. If that is the case, how should we be reacting? What are the implications for story-times and other activities that involve reading to children? What is our response to boys’ need for male role models of reading?

There are so many challenges that face us when we are trying to relate library provision to reading development needs. Bilingualism has a profound influence on how children learn to read. In a less positive way, so do dyslexia, dyspraxia and other learning difficulties. We have to be aware of what is happening in schools and in pre-school settings so that we can be an effective complement. Many library authorities are involved in innovative and successful schemes, often in ground-breaking partnerships with other service providers.

For Matilda learning to read was easy. For many, many children it is not. Sue Townsend felt that there should have been a hundred-gun salute when at the age of eight, and only as a result of a bad case of mumps and a bundle of William books bought by her mother at a jumble sale, she finally found out how to decipher the squiggles on the page.2

All too many of us know children who are quite capable of deciphering the squiggles, but who choose not to do so. Meeting the needs of children at every point on the reading spectrum is one of the most fundamental tasks that face us. Our role is certainly not a simple one, but it is vital and it is unique. It Is also incredibly rewarding. Watching a child experience the full magic of books for the first time is wonderful. How inspiring to know that our actions have played a crucial part in turning that child into a reader.


1 Roald Dahl, Matilda, Puffin, 2001, ISBN 978-0141311364
2 The Pleasures of Reading, ed Antonia Fraser, Bloomsbury, 1992, ISBN 978-0747508137