In order to inspire and enthuse young readers, teachers need an in-depth knowledge of children’s literature. But how can this be acquired? Prue Goodwin investigates.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) was the commitment to literature at the heart of children’s experience as they learn to read. Many teachers (the ones reading this article, for example) have always recognised the importance of literature in the classroom. It is so obvious that books and literacy go hand-in-hand that it almost seems unnecessary to make a statutory requirement out of it. But there it is – in the new National Curriculum document (DfEE and QCA 1999) – pupils should become ‘enthusiastic and critical readers’ of literature.
Such a requirement would be simple to achieve if all teachers had a working knowledge of children’s books; but not all do. Many teachers may be brilliant in their subject areas but it is unrealistic to expect them all to know about children’s books – or to understand the part literature plays in literacy learning. Teachers need to know how children learn to read, the most successful teaching methods and the most effective resources. The resources are books; books that provide the focus for teaching, books to be read aloud, books for children to read independently and books to be shared. It is also most important that teachers are able to communicate enthusiasm about books regardless of their personal interest. So how can teachers acquire such a broad knowledge of children’s literature?
Initial teacher training
Most of my colleagues in teacher education would agree that trainee primary teachers ought to develop a confident grounding in children’s literature whilst at college. Ensuring that they do so, however, is far from straightforward. Teacher educators also have a ‘National Curriculum’. Teaching: High status, high standards (DfEE 1998) is a 138-page document describing ‘requirements for courses of initial teacher training’. There is nothing in it that acknowledges the need for teachers to know about children’s books. It uses the word literature only once – when it states that trainees must be taught to use ‘oral and written activities which require pupils to make critical and imaginative responses to aspects of literature’. Unfortunately, lecturers dedicated to including sessions on children’s literature for their students have often had to fight to find space in their tight teaching schedules to ensure that this happens. There is a great deal to fit into initial teacher training. Possibly it could be argued that courses on children’s literature are more suited to an on-going programme of in-service training, once the newly qualified teachers are in schools.
Children’s literature in further professional studies
There are plenty of sources of information about children’s books – journals, associations, library services and websites – but these are no substitute for personal contacts with knowledgeable lecturers and fellow practitioners. The best starting point to learn about children’s literature is on a course.
Some local authorities have well informed advisers that will visit schools and some lucky ones still have a schools library service to offer support. Specialist literacy centres – such as, the Centre for Language in Primary Education (CLPE), the Reading and Language Information Centre (RALIC) and REACH (formerly the National Library for the Handicapped Child) – provide courses and conferences throughout the UK, either about children’s literature or about its place in literacy teaching. Certain university colleges regularly run seminars and conferences with a variety of opportunities to consider children’s literature. For example, there is a biannual conference at Homerton College in Cambridge, a termly reading club for teachers at University College Worcester, a Spring term conference at Manchester Metropolitan University and, this year, an International Summer School at the University of Surrey, Roehampton. For the more academic, it is possible to study for an MA in children’s literature at universities in Nottingham, Reading, Roehampton, Wales and Warwick.
‘Calling all teachers!’
There is a need for regular INSET provision for all teachers, not just the ones who attend courses in their own time. At the very least one staff meeting a term should be dedicated to literature. Thousands of pounds were spent on books during the Year of Reading but the NLS training offered scant support in developing awareness in this area. There is little value in spending money on tools if the workers don’t know how to use them. Despite the lack of attention in the training materials, however, the intention of the NLS regarding teacher knowledge about books is clearly illustrated by this quote from one of the training cassettes.
The first thing of all I would say no matter how bogged down you feel by following all of this [training] – and no matter how worried you are about whether you understand all the Framework objectives – the first thing you’ve got to do is somehow find the time to feel enthusiastic as a reader. Go out and buy some books; borrow some books; soak yourself in children’s literature, and enjoy it. I hope [at training courses] there’s always a good book display and there’s always time for teachers to browse and share favourites. If the teachers don’t do that, then children never will.
Chris Buckton, NLS Trainer’s Cassette 4, Side 1 (DfEE 1998)
More courses on children’s literature are essential but it is also necessary for education managers to recognise the importance of all teachers attending them. Effective teachers of literacy set about the task of creating readers with the best tools available – children’s books.
For information about conferences and courses mentioned in this article please send a sae to:
Prue Goodwin, Reading and Language Information Centre, The University of Reading, Bulmershe Court, Reading RG6 1HY
Prue Goodwin taught in primary and middle schools for over 20 years before becoming Director of INSET with the Reading and Language Information Centre at the University of Reading.