Does what happens in the classroom affect what happens in the library and the bookshop?
Are we sabotaging our own efforts to create enthusiastic readers? Patrick Creber asks: What do school books mean?
A class of eight-year-olds was on a nature walk through a rather marshy wood. One boy bent down but was suddenly restrained by his companion: `Don’t pick up that frog, or you’ll have to write about it.’
A lot has been written about the kind of learning implied by that story, that what a pupil learns from a teacher may be more as well as less than the teacher thinks. What has received less attention is what pupils `learn’ about the meanings teachers appear to attach to particular activities or materials. What, for instance, is the `hidden curriculum’ of reading and books? What sorts of messages about what reading means, about what books are for are we transmitting to children in schools? For the teacher who `believes in books’ and in the pleasures of reading and who is trying to develop this in children, it is important to know what he is up against. All his efforts may be defeated by the effect on his pupils of all the other reading they have to do through their school careers. Perhaps even `the believers’ are frustrating their own efforts by presenting conflicting views of what reading is.
To give just three examples. In the early years the pressure to learn to read, whether it be real or imagined, whether it originates at home or at school, produces a great deal of anxiety. To the less successful reader the classroom can appear full of kids who can read better than he can. This is bound to obscure what reading really means and alter the child’s feeling for books. In the junior school there is a tendency to use reading books to fill in odd moments so that books are seen as `what you use for the few moments before playtime to keep you quiet’.
At secondary level, the Schools Council Report The Effective Use of Reading showed that about half of all reading across the whole curriculum consisted of short bursts of perhaps thirty seconds or less, and in addition that this practice was actually used by some people as a control mechanism – `keeping kids on their toes’.
Experiences like these can all too often conspire to rob children of the zest, confidence and `reading appetite’ which we seek to promote through class libraries, school bookshops and the like.
Other things we do may equally encourage children to have a very narrow view of what reading means. Comprehension activities where chunks of text always have questions attached to them inevitably condition response and restrict it. The child `learns’ that when reading he is under an obligation to understand; he learns that a good pupil is one who is able to lift a particular kind of meaning from a text, get the `right’ answers phrased in the `right’ way. In this situation and sometimes in our teaching too, perhaps, we appear to children as intolerant of ambiguity. Whenever we are particularly intent on `putting things over’ we more easily become impatient with whatever is not clear. Yet ambiguity is something not merely to be tolerated if thinking and responding is to occur – it needs to be welcomed and harnessed to win genuine personal response. If we think about our own experience as readers we realise that as we have learned to mull over books we have often been intrigued or stimulated by ambiguity, nor merely irritated by it.
But that is not all. To an obligation to understand we can add the additional burden of an obligation to feel. In Victorian books for children the text clearly told the reader how he should think and feel about what he was reading. The child reader nowadays is subjected to a similar process in ways which are less obvious. The most common of these is where the teacher chooses to read or recommend one of his `favourites’ to the class. Such presentation invites acceptance from the compliant or eager to please, and either dumb or vocal resistance from the disenchanted. Either response is determined more by the pupils’ feelings about the teacher and the teacher’s relation with the book than by their response to the book itself.
It is clearly necessary for adult and child to be able to share enthusiasm; but this has to be done in a way which does not imply that if the child remains uninfected he has somehow failed. The purpose of the enthusiasm is to help the child meet the book. If the teacher’s personal feeling for the book is brandished in the wrong way this comes between the child and the book.
I referred earlier to the Schools Council Report The Effective Use of Reading. The most important idea of this, it seems to me, is the suggestion that success in reading, or effective reading, occurs when the conditions make it possible for the child to `have a conversation with the text’. The research team also singled out `willingness to reflect’ as the most crucial factor in determining effective reading performance. We who are concerned to promote children’s feeling for books must search for conditions in which these attitudes can be fostered and must be alert for conditions and activities which militate against them. At present, children’s experience of reading in school often leaves them with low reading morale and a cramped conception of what reading means; ill-equipped to respond, understand in the ways we might hope for.
As committed readers we might also consider our own ways with books and reading, and ask ourselves how close a match there is between these and what we ask of and offer children in their contact with books in school.
The Effective Use of Reading, edited by E. Lunzer and K. Gardner, Heinemann Educational, £4.50 paperback.
Paddy Creber is Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, University of Exeter. Author of Sense and Sensitivity (University of London Press – now out of print) and Lost for Words (Penguin), he has taught in schools and lectured widely in this country, the USA and Canada. He is also a parent.