Page Turners

Why the art of reading is about so much more than just words on a page.

Blockbuster . Best-seller . Page-turner . Cliffhanger – a good book is that most treasured of possessions, a window into other worlds that are full of characters and landscapes we love to love. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin...

William Halsey (Grade 11) reading his favourite book The Way of Kings, an epic fantasy novel by Brandon Sanderson set on Roshar, a world of stone and storms in the Cosmere universe.

"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark,” wrote Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. And at ZIS, that fire is nourished every day, ensuring it can burn for a lifetime. But why is learning to read such an essential part of a child’s development? And how, in an age of screens, can we encourage our children to become lifelong readers?

“Reading isn’t just a pleasurable experience,” writes Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, “it’s widely accepted that it inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy and reduces stress.” Sahakian was co-author of a study among young adolescents in the US that found that children who begin reading for pleasure early in life tend to perform better at cognitive tests and have better mental health when they become teenagers. “We found significant evidence that it’s linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health and brain structure, which are cornerstones for future learning and well-being.”

And it all begins at home, so if you’re wondering how to give your kids the best start in life, just open a book. “Be a reading role model,” says Katherine Deutsch, Lower School Curriculum Development and Instructional Coach. “I personally think it’s important that they see us reading things that are not our phones! Create a cosy spot for children to read, whether that’s on the couch together or in a child’s room with a variety of books that they can access.

“Reading together every day is, to me, one of the most important things that parents can do. It helps the child develop vocabulary and oral language skills, and it’s also a great bonding experience. In fact, for the most part, home learning at the Lower School is students being expected to read every day.”

Leigh Williams, Head of English, Secondary Campus, agrees that reading is a joy to be shared. “Ask your kids: what’s this book about? What do you think is interesting about it? Which characters do you find most engaging or relatable? Just having those regular conversations about books reinforces the idea that what the student is reading is important and you care about it. Or try reading the same books as your children: if my kid is reading James Baldwin, I’ll make sure that I’m reading James Baldwin, too, so we can talk about it.”

Of course, schools have a vital part to play, which is why reading is woven into daily life at ZIS. “Literacy creates the foundation for most of the experiences that a child has in school, and eventually in the world,” explains Katherine. “Reading and writing skills are crucial for socialising with other children because they involve listening, speaking and understanding what someone is saying. Literacy is critical for solving problems, reasoning and making decisions, and then eventually building independence as a learner and as a citizen within society.”

Reading isn’t just a pleasurable experience, it’s widely accepted that it inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy and reduces stress

It’s why a typical day at the Lower School begins with – you guessed it – reading. As well as talking about exciting things that have happened or what they’re looking forward to that day, children often share stories they’ve written themselves, or books that they love. But it doesn’t stop there. Teachers read aloud to students every day, while regular workshops allow lots of independent reading and writing time.

Each workshop begins with a mini-lesson lasting five or ten minutes, which teaches a strategy or a skill. Then students are encouraged to go and read. Sometimes a teacher might recommend a particular book to a child, but students usually select their own titles. “This workshop structure allows teachers the opportunity to interact in small groups or one-on-one with students and help them progress as readers and writers,” explains Katherine.

As students mature and grow, says Leigh, they gradually learn that literacy is a lifelong process: they will take the skills they learn in Middle and Upper School to university and beyond. “We take the time to really celebrate reading. We make time and space for it, giving students lots of options and opportunities. The Middle School does a great job of continuing to get kids to read, even as social media is pulling them away. We try to make it interesting and engaging and fun.”

Nicholas Mueller (Grade 1) loves The Sour Grape by Jory John and Pete Oswald, with its ripe humour, deeply held grudges and heartfelt lessons of forgiveness.

Lower School Librarian Orlagh Ryan recommends The Mysterious Sea Bunny by Peter Raymundo, a quirky and informative tale of underwater life, great for children aged 3 to 5.

What is 'normal' when a child is learning to read

When it comes to learning to read, says Katherine Deutsch, it’s helpful to compare the process to those early developmental milestones such as sitting up, crawling and walking. The majority of children will reach those in their own good time, some much earlier than others, and ZIS is on hand to monitor that progress and react appropriately. “We understand that babies develop at a different pace and that variations in that development are normal,” she says.

“In the same way, children progress through a predictable pattern of developmental stages as readers and writers, and it’s important that parents have a general understanding of what typical milestones might be. Children go from just speaking and listening and then beginning to pick up the pencil and draw shapes on a page – those emergent writing stages – to being able to understand that the squiggles on a page are actually a code that they can decode and read. That happens between the ages of three and six or seven for most kids. But it’s equally important to recognise that every child is unique and is going to progress at their own pace.”

And on the ZIS Bilingual Pathway, students learn how to read in their stronger language first. “We call this the students’ language A,” says Dr Christiane Charon, Head of the Bilingual Pathway. “These skills, once acquired, are then transferable to other languages – for example, language B or indeed their home language if this is a language other than English or German. Students develop these skills and transfer at their own pace.”

Oliver McLaughlin of 2028 (2021-23), loves to read the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.

Olivia Relander (Grade 8) is obsessed with Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins.

Giulia Faccio (Grade 8) was sad to reach the end of Cinderella is Dead by Kaylynn Bayron.

Sophie Stucki’s (Grade 8) favourite book is the Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

Be a reading role model. I personally think it’s important that children see us reading things that are not our phones!

The library brims with more complex, longer texts – many with audiobooks, so students can listen and read, and including books published by alumni. Reading is still an essential part of the school day, with regular ‘silent sustained reading’ in the Middle School. Students can read anything: scripts, non-fiction, newspapers, graphic novels. There is a constant stream of reading-related activities: recent author visits include best-selling authors Neal Shusterman, Jasmine Warga and Abby Cooper, hip-hop artist and poet Karl Nova, and motivational speaker and author Stuart Lawrence. Blind Date with a Book is popular: teachers wrap a book in paper, write a couple of basic things about it and give students a few minutes to read it and see if they like it. “A couple of years ago, Middle School did a project where students took pictures of themselves reading in interesting places,” says Leigh. “It supported the idea of reading as a thing you could do anywhere.”

And reading in your home language is crucial, says Catherine Jolly, Lower School Principal. Literacy, she points out, is a transferable skill: if students learn to read or to enjoy reading in their own language, it’s then much easier to transfer to another language. But a student’s home language is also a vital part of who they are – and reading can help keep that part alive. “Parents can feel that once they’re in an international setting, they should focus on English at home. But at home is the only time, for some of the kids, that they’re going to hear that language, as they’re no longer immersed in that language and that culture at school. So, when we ask parents to read with their children, we say that reading in their home language is very important. The joy of literature should come through your home language and your identity.”

And who knows where a burning passion for reading may lead? “We want our students to become engaged, lifelong readers who will pick up books into adulthood and read for fun,” says Leigh. “We want thoughtful, critical citizens who are engaged in reading forever. But most of all, we want them to feel the sheer joy of reading.