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Reading — good for your health

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By Jane Bowerconsultant to primary schools in art, drama, dance and literacy

Discover how both mind and body can benefit from reading during this month’s National Year of Reading theme

girl with books

Reading — good for your health

National Year of Reading Logo

1. Healthy-mind portraits

We have plenty of information on what makes a healthy body, but what makes a healthy mind? Invite children to discuss this and then make facial portraits showing the contents of the mind – with thoughts floating out on ‘think’ bubbles. A healthy mind might be thinking of good memories, loving and being loved, planning something fun, the right amount of sleep, a mixture of indoor and outdoor activities, a balance of work and play, hobbies, reading, music, and so on. An unhealthy mind might contain loneliness, jealousy, hatred, drugs, lack of education, nothing to look forward to and bad memories. Deal with this idea positively by emphasising that minds can nearly always be improved and made more healthy. How might we go about doing this, for ourselves and for other people? Instead of painted portraits, written portraits can be made, or a play about two minds where one learned from the other.

2. Reading for health

Discuss what reading resources are available that specifically help our health. Gather as many examples as possible. These might include leaflets from surgeries, supermarkets and pharmacies. There may be others, such as advertisements for books or courses to ‘improve your mind’ or aid the memory, or leaflets about meditation, yoga, and so on. You might also bring cultural or historical information sources, such as museum guides or theatre and concert programmes. How might these benefit the mind and body?

Teach enjoyment of words by asking children to talk about and list the words that they like and the words they dislike, and exactly why this is

3. A balanced diet

Look at charts that show the percentage or proportion of each food group that we should eat to stay healthy. What makes a good reading diet? Design a pie chart showing a healthy, balanced reading diet. Groups might include fact/information, fiction/prose, poetry, biographies, comics – or perhaps different authors for a balance of styles. Ask: Why is it important to read something from each group? Which reading group equates with which food group?

4. Mind gym

What reading do children feel should be available in a hospital/gym/waiting room? Is there any type of reading that is not appropriate? Where else should reading material be provided (taxis, planes, buses, school foyer, pubs, restaurants) and what kind should it be? Design the perfect ‘mind gym’ – a selection of reading material to relax and exercise the mind, specifically chosen to suit one of these places. For example, in one city, a reading scheme was trialled on buses, with books in pockets on the backs of seats. They had to be very short so that passengers could complete them on a journey.

5. Reading clinic

Make a list of symptoms on laminated cards, such as ‘I just don’t enjoy reading’, ‘I’m too tired to read’, ‘I never know what to read’, ‘I read very slowly’, ‘I read so quickly I don’t take in the details’, and so on. Make a ‘reading clinic’ in an area of the room and invite children to choose a symptom which describes them, or write their own. Discuss their problem and write out a prescription which you feel might help. For example, just as a child is not going to like swimming if he is frightened of water, he is not going to like reading if he is wary of words. Teach enjoyment of words by asking children to talk about and list the words that they like and the words they dislike, and exactly why this is. Categorise the reasons – association, meaning of word, sound of word, feel of word in the mouth, and so on. This fosters a greater awareness of words and our personal feelings towards them. Challenge children to include three of their favourites in a story, or three of their least favourite in a poem.

6. Reading healthily

What healthy practices can improve our reading? See how many the children can list, such as good light, eating foods containing vitamin A for sight, eating foods that are good for the mind such as fish, not reading for too long, not reading too late at night, not holding the book too close to the eyes, print not too small, quiet atmosphere, few or no interruptions, ensuring reading material is appropriate and of interest, good posture, enough sleep, regular sight tests, and so on.

7. Just the medicine

Just as deliberately inoculating people with infections can bring about immunity to a disease, deliberately reading or writing poor material can bring about in children a greater awareness of its bad qualities. Try reading children some shallow, good-for-a-quick-laugh poetry, and then a short but witty or wonderfully descriptive poem, perhaps by Ogden Nash or Emily Dickinson, or a Japanese haiku. Discuss the merits of each, comparing them to foods such as sweets and a casserole. Which will sustain us longer?

Take a simple sentence such as: ‘He thought he might eat out that night’ and ask the children to expand it into a ludicrously long, rambling and verbose piece of writing full of unnecessary detail and irrelevancies. They will soon see the humour in this and learn that sometimes concise and clear sentences are needed. Try taking an exciting basic plot, such as that in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and asking the children to write it in as dull and unimaginative a manner as possible. This will help them to see how phrasing things in a certain way can grip or bore the reader.

Reading should not merely pass the time, but offer stimulation, relaxation and pleasure

8. Story morning

Hold a story morning in your school. In each available room, an adult (parent, teacher, teaching assistant, headteacher, cleaner, caretaker, lunchtime supervisor) offers a story of a specified length. Children sign up beforehand for the one they want to listen to. It can be helpful to categorise them by suitability, such as ‘Year 5 and 6 girls’ or ‘Boys/girls 7—9’. If adults are willing to tell their story more than once, groups can swap at a given time. The rest of the day’s work can be based on the morning’s experience. You can also incorporate areas for older children to read to younger ones.

9. Design a waiting room

Ask children what would make their ideal waiting-room reading material and activities. Reading should not merely pass the time, but offer stimulation, relaxation and pleasure so that the waiting is used profitably. Suggestions might include areas for parents to read to children, word games such as anagrams, crosswords and word searches. If there is a waiting area in your school, you could carry out your ideas and leave a book for comments and feedback.

10. Helpful stories

Can children think of any stories where reading has helped someone? (There are lots of examples in the Harry Potter stories) Or where a lack of ability has hindered someone? (Pooh Bear’s spelling was very poor, and he thought of himself as ‘a bear of very little brain’). Ask children to write stories where reading, or good or poor reading ability, plays a key part in the plot.

11. Reading performance

Challenge children to write and perform a short play in which reading plays an important part in someone’s health, such as a letter giving results of medical tests, a discovered diary saying someone has tried drugs, or a newspaper report warning of the dangers of alcohol, enabling action to be taken to help the character in question.

12. Healthy dancing

Dance is good exercise in itself – but try basing dances on letter formations, words or a theme such as growing from illness to health.

Further information

Find out more on the National Year of Reading website, plus click here for lots more scholastic magazines resources to support the National Year of Reading.

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