Time to drop everything and just read

A campaign to support literacy, started in the US, has spread to Ireland

You’re sitting at your school desk, writing down your homework; you’re the school secretary, busy on your computer; you’re the principal, preparing for a meeting. And then the bell rings, and a voice on the intercom tells you to “drop everything and read”. So you reach into your bag, take out your novel and read for half an hour. (Or for more or less than that, depending on the school or the circumstances). Everyone has to do this, from the principal to the caretaker, even anyone who’s visiting the school at the time. Answering machines are on, phones are off, there’s just you and your chosen book, and all around you are others doing exactly the same thing. The atmosphere, I hear, is magical.

Drop Everything and Read (Dear) is one of the many tools used to support literacy in our schools. It was started in the US, inspired by one of the United States’ most successful children’s writers, Beverly Cleary. It has spread to many places, and versions are used in hundreds of schools in Ireland.

Some children come from households where nobody reads and there are no books, others from homes where the television is never switched off, and shared bedrooms may not allow for the kind of quiet that’s needed for losing yourself in a book. And we’re all becoming slaves to our electronic devices.

So creating an environment where picking up a book and entering its world is encouraged, even in the middle of a busy school day, sends a powerful message.

In some secondary schools everyone has to carry a novel in their bag, and although the day on which the “drop everything” signal is sounded may be known in advance, they don’t know what time, or during what class or activity period, it will happen.

Other schools don’t confine it to fiction, as literacy in your chosen subject of interest – science, for example – is essential. Some do it once a month, others more or less frequently, and some for a chosen week every term. The main purpose of the exercise is to normalise reading for pleasure.

It happens in both primary and secondary schools. Sometimes in the primary schools they use books from the school library, with everyone having a book that interests them on their desks on a designated day. In other schools it’s a regular feature of the school timetable. For the children the knowledge that this extra piece of reading will not be tested or examined, and that it’s purely for enjoyment, is what really appeals.

Indeed the Dear programme has spread beyond schools. Bennery Rickard of the HSE library service was intrigued when she heard about it at her son’s school, and she decided to adapt it for the workplace. So now people who work for the HSE in Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare receive emails from her every so often, encouraging them not exactly to drop everything and read there and then but to take the time to explore the links she has sent them to articles and books that might help them in their professional development. The response, she says, has been overwhelmingly positive.

The arguments for literacy as an essential tool for survival in the contemporary world are well known. It is good to know that in these pressurised times teachers and librarians are taking the time needed to run programmes like this. For personal use, I would suggest a new acronym: Toad (turn off all devices), Dear.

Doireann Ní Bhriain is a voice coach

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