Suddenly, improving children’s reading and writing performance has become a national goal with 1998/9 designated the National Year of Reading. Education Minister David Blunkett has announced an ambitious target for all 11-year-olds to reach level 4 in English (their chronological reading age) by 2002.
Teachers confronted with the immediate practicalities of meeting Blunkett’s target are faced with a confusing array of schemes and methodologies. As the National Literacy Trust (which has 1,800 initiatives on its database) puts it in its booklet Building a Literate Nation: ‘Literacy is a multi-faceted subject that demands the attention of practitioners and thinkers with very different perspectives. It is not, therefore, surprising that there is no common agenda for building a literate nation over the next five years.’ Clearly, there is need for a common language to discuss literacy strategy if this important programme is to be met.
Blunkett’s literacy target follows hard on the heels of the government’s new ‘literacy hour’ initiative which followed summer literacy schools and classes for parents. New Labour is also trying to make literacy sexy: best selling author Ken Follett (husband of the MP Barbara) was invited to launch the literacy hour. Grange Hill and Brookside creator Phil Redmond was also invited to give his support and he has expressed willingness to build literacy into the plot of Brookside. As he says: ‘Literacy allows us to exchange ideas and knowledge that are the motors of all social and cultural change … Children are our biggest investment.’
A National Year of Reading immediately raises the question: which books to read? During the course of 1998, BfK will be focusing on books and ideas which will promote interest in and enjoyment of books with literacy in mind in every kind of community. But while teachers take action across the country in order to achieve the government’s ambitious programme to raise standards, preschool intervention and the empowering of parents to engender enthusiasm and interest in reading must not be forgotten.
In an article in Signal* (September 1997), Parents and Children Sharing Books: An Observational Study, Maggie Moore and Barrie Wade discuss the long-term impact on the children involved of Bookstart, a national pilot project in Birmingham in 1992 which was designed to encourage the sharing of books with babies. 130 parents were given Bookstart packs at their local health clinic via librarians and health visitors. In 1997 the children were assessed using the Birmingham Baseline criteria for literacy and numeracy. ‘Detailed analysis is still in progress,’ write Moore and Wade, ‘but first and clear indications are that the Bookstart group are strongly superior in the literacy measures for reading and writing and they are also ahead in numeracy. These preliminary findings suggest that babies, given the advantage of book-sharing with adults from nine months of age, not only develop the foundations of literacy … in the preschool years; they also maintain these advantages and are further ahead at the onset of schooling. Bookstart not only has the power to generate the interest in books that leads to pleasure and satisfaction, it also has the potential to affect levels of literacy and numeracy during the first year in school.’
This crucial evidence, if translated into further Bookstart initiatives, could benefit young readers and their parents even before school starts so that for many, literacy problems, with their devastating attendant connotations of failure and shame, never arise.
*Signal: Approaches to Children’s Books is available from The Thimble Press, Lockwood, Station Road, Woodchester, Stroud, Glos. GL5 5EQ. Single copies £4.25; annual subscription £12.75.