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Understanding ‘Reluctant Readers’


Understanding ‘reluctant readers’ is for me, a piece of cake. After all, I was one of them. That didn’t mean I didn’t want to read, I did. Somehow all those pesky letters had joined a circus of trapeze artists. Still today I have moments when a sentence becomes nothing more than a moving ribbon of words. It’s made worse if they’re bunched together or put into a font that is too dense for me to decipher.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was fourteen that the words calmed down enough to stay still on the page. At fourteen I went from ‘Janet and John’ to ‘Wuthering Heights’ and I missed out on a whole range of books that should have gone in between.  

As for spelling there is little magic in my battle with it. Sometimes I am baffled by what a word might begin with. It is all those silent letters that trip me up. Yet it is without doubt a hospitable language and is the best paint pot of words I could wish for. The trouble is that ever since Samuel Johnson compiled his first dictionary, there’s been an invisible class system when it comes to reading and spelling.

There is no doubt that those who can spell and know every piece of grammar may feel they are superior to those of us who struggle to spell correctly. I would like to point out that you can swallow a dictionary, know every piece of correct grammar and still have no ability to write. For the simple reason that writing, rather like singing, demands a voice. Spelling and grammar alone will not give you that.  

Not many people remember what it is like learning to read. Unfortunately, I can. One of my earliest memories of school was a sense of profound disappointment with the word cat. In my mind the word should have been long with a tail. Not just three squat little letters that had no movement in them. Most of my learning has been done through my ears. I listen to audiobooks and there is an art to listening. You can read words yet still take nothing in, while you can listen and hear it all.

Half the problem is that our current education system is run by politicians and not by teachers. Consequently, dyslexic children have been left like goldfish without enough water to keep them alive. We still don’t celebrate diversity in the brain.  We expect all children to learn the same way when we know they don’t. Education runs on train track lines with stations of achievement and exams. Dyslexic children are not train-track thinkers. Most of us think outside the box. In short, we think differently, we learn differently. This doesn’t make us stupid or ‘unteachable’, a label I was rather chuffed with as a child, as I hoped it might mean I didn’t have to carry on with school. Instead, it makes bored and clever children, naughty.  

When I write for small people, I make sure the words I use are the ones I can spell. Which, in all honesty, limits things quite nicely.  My language might be simple, but I want the child to have an interesting story so I keep sentences short and keep the story moving.

The Tindims was an idea that my daughter, Lydia, and I came up with. We moved to Hastings about two years ago and were very aware of all the rubbish washed up on the beach, especially plastic water bottles. What are we doing putting water into bottles that end up floating around in the sea? Fishes and baby turtles die in them. This is not the fault of our children. It’s our problem and I don’t want children to go to bed worried sick about the planet they live on. They have quite enough to worry about without me adding to the list. But Lydia and I wanted to encourage conservationists and budding eco-warriors with a good story and fabulous illustrations. We didn’t want to give them a moralist story. What they need is to have a giggle while reading and perhaps by chance the longs legs (adults) might also think about the rubbish they throw away.

We printed The Tindims in dyslexic font. What has been interesting is that lots of people have said they found the dyslexic font easier to read and gentler on the eye.  I would like to see every book published for children this way and words given the space, needed for a reluctant reader, to take them in.

We need to stop wasting our main resource, our children. For their imagination is the future of this nation.  We need to embrace the reluctant reader, be they dyslexic or not. To inspire them and set fire to the touchpaper of their dreams.

I will carry on fighting for dyslexia to be seen as a gift, as long as it is nurtured and not left to wither on a vine. Dyslexia offers an extraordinary lens on the world, a different way of seeing and there is absolutely nothing reluctant about it.

Book two in Sally Gardner’s new TINDIMS series, THE TINDIMS AND THE TURTLE TANGLE (Zephyr, £6.99) is out now, featuring illustrations by her daughter Lydia Corry.

Read a Just Imagine review here

Purchase Tindims books here