Do primary teachers read for pleasure themselves? How much do they know about children’s fiction, poetry and picture books? And how do they introduce such books into their classrooms? Teresa Cremin, Eve Bearne, Prue Goodwin and Marilyn Mottram report on their research into these topics as members of the United Kingdom Literacy Association Children’s Literature Special Interest Group.
Are primary teachers readers? If so what are their reading habits and preferences? How broad is their knowledge of children’s literature and in what ways do they use this in the classroom? Furthermore what is the nature of their involvement in local area (YLG)/school library services?
These are the questions which the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) Children’s Literature Special Interest Group (SIG) set out to explore. The group was aware that effective primary teachers need much more than knowledge of the skills and cueing systems which young readers employ; they need an extensive knowledge of children’s literature (Medwell et al., 1998). Yet the extent of their knowledge in this area is unknown, for while studies of children’s attitudes to reading and knowledge of literature have been undertaken (Clark and Foster, 2005), no studies have systematically documented teachers’ knowledge and use of literature.
The SIG was also concerned about the reported decline in children’s reading for pleasure, (e.g. Twist et al, 2003; Sainsbury and Schagen, 2004), and the emphasis on phonics (DfES, 2006) which could profile a more disconnected approach to teaching reading, and felt it was timely to undertake research into teachers’ reading practices, both personally and professionally.
Tapping into UKLA networks, questionnaire responses from 1200 teachers in eleven Local Authorities (LAs) in England were collected, as well as from some student teachers in five HE institutions. The LAs represented a spread of inner city, rural and urban areas reflecting a broad range of socio-economic status. The questionnaire was piloted, adapted and introduced to teachers (whose main responsibility was not literacy related), on professional development short courses October-December 2006. Approximately half the teachers worked in Foundation and Key Stage One and half in Key Stage Two.
Are teachers readers?
Overwhelmingly the answer is yes. Nearly three quarters (73%) had read for pleasure during the last month and 20% during the last three months. Popular fiction, including women’s popular fiction, thrillers and crime novels, was the most frequent choice (40%). Autobiographies and biographies, many of which were about individuals who have suffered and triumphed over adversity (14%), were recorded as the next most popular category, alongside other post 1980s novels (14%).
On reflecting upon their favourite childhood reading, popular fiction was again the most frequently mentioned, particularly the work of Blyton and Dahl. 10% of their favourites were pre-20th-century classics and 9% were picture books. Very few noted poetry in this context (1.5%).
However, when choosing their most important book, the teachers discounted popular fiction in favour of religious, spiritual, allegorical and exemplary books. These included not only the Bible (mentioned over 200 times) but also, for example, works with themes of morality and justice, including very recent as well as 20th-century fiction. The responses included many classics – both from Europe and North America – which the teachers would have studied in school as pupils. This bears out the importance of teachers studying literature with children as well as simply reading for pleasure.
To source their pleasure in reading, teachers noted they relied upon local bookshops (mentioned by 80%), on-line bookshops (mentioned by 36%) and friends (mentioned by 56%). In contrast, libraries were mentioned by only 34%.
To what extent do teachers link with libraries?
There is some concern about links between teachers and local library services; only just over half reported using the local library facilities for school, mostly for borrowing books. 60% had not taken children to visit their local library for over six months and 18% recorded never having visited the local library with their class. 14% had visited within the last three months and 6% within the last six months.
Although these figures will have been influenced by local conditions and arrangements between LAs and library services, the overall figures, drawn from eleven LAs, indicate at best infrequent visits and not much reliance on librarians’ expertise in developing activities or selecting materials for the classroom. Worryingly, teachers with fewer years of teaching experience in the classroom were less likely to use library services; 59% of those who had taught for between 0-5 years reported not using the local library for school purposes.
Teachers’ knowledge of children’s writers
When asked to list six ‘good’ children’s writers, responses indicate that a wide number of authors are known to primary practitioners, although many of those listed might be more readily seen as picture book makers. 64% of the teachers named five or six writers. 46% named six. Roald Dahl was in a league all of his own (744) although others mentioned by over 250 teachers included Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, J K Rowling and Anne Fine. Others who received above a hundred mentions were: Dick King-Smith, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Enid Blyton, Shirley Hughes, C S Lewis, Philip Pullman, Mick Inkpen and Martin Waddell.
Most of these authors are very well known, perhaps to parents as well as teachers, but the dominance of these writers places in shadow the myriad of quality writers whose work, directed at older readers, deserves to be introduced to the young. In addition, given the current popularity of fantasy novels it is surprising how few authors of this genre are noted; many highly significant writers received less than five mentions. It seems likely that the NC requirement to study ‘significant’ children’s authors may have influenced the lack of breadth of knowledge indicated here.
Teachers’ knowledge of poets
The data suggest that naming six ‘good’ poets was a challenge. 58% of the respondents only named one, two or no poets. 22% named no poets at all. Only 10% named six poets. The new Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen drew the highest number of mentions (452) with five others gaining over a hundred mentions: Allan Ahlberg, Roger McGough, Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan and Benjamin Zephaniah. After these, three poets were mentioned more than fifty times: Edward Lear, Ted Hughes, A A Milne. There was a predominance of poets mentioned whose writing could be seen as light-hearted or humorous and whose work may be studied under the National Strategy banner of ‘classic poetry’. Exceptionally few women poets were mentioned and, with the notable exception of Benjamin Zephaniah, very few black poets received any mentions. The marked lack of knowledge of poets may indicate that teachers tend to select poems to ‘study’ in class, selecting these perhaps from anthologies rather than single author collections.
Teachers’ knowledge of picture fiction creators
Over half the sample (62%) were only able to name one, two or no picture fiction writers. 24% named no picture fiction authors/illustrators, whilst 10% named six. Some of these picture book makers were also named as ‘authors’ in the first list. The highest number of mentions by far was for Quentin Blake (423); the second highest category noted was for books whose titles were offered, but whose authors were not recorded. Four other picture fiction creators received over a hundred mentions: Anthony Browne, Shirley Hughes, Mick Inkpen and Allan Ahlberg. This is a very small group given the myriad of authors/illustrators who are publishing today. In the sample as a whole perhaps unsurprisingly, there were fewer mentions of new picture book makers/illustrators or for those who offer texts for KS2 readers. The work of Quentin Blake stands out – whether through his own texts such as Zagazoo or Clown or his illustrations of Roald Dahl’s work is unknown. It does however correlate with the findings from the fiction and poetry surveys that suggest Dahl is pre-eminent within his field in terms of teachers’ knowledge of his work.
The practice of reading aloud for pleasure in class remains a popular activity, with three quarters of the teachers having read a book aloud during the previous month or currently. However 9% had last read aloud over six months ago or never. Picture books were by far the most frequent choice. In terms of novels, fantasy (20%) and mystery/adventure (14%) predominated. There was limited breadth in terms of authors and almost no poetry or global literature read aloud.
Reading aloud appeared to decline with older classes; whilst 83% of F/KS1 teachers reported reading aloud daily, 52% of KS2 teachers reported this weekly or less frequently. The figures suggest that teachers who are new to teaching tend to read aloud more often to their classes than more experienced colleagues.
In deciding which books to use in class, many teachers used several criteria, the highest category being personal knowledge and interest (85%), but whether teachers have sufficiently diverse knowledge of authors, poets and picture book creators to enable them to make informed choices and recommendations is a matter of debate. Teachers also noted they were influenced by children’s recommendations (64%), the school literacy coordinator (31%) and librarians (21%).
Teachers are readers but…
Whilst it is encouraging that teachers read for pleasure there is an urgent need to extend the scope and range of their knowledge of children’s literature. It is clear that they are avid readers themselves and enjoy fast-paced, engaging narratives. It is equally clear that the many books which teachers treasure were introduced to them by their own teachers. If their enjoyment of reading can be extended to a wider range of authors then this can only be beneficial for future readers whose varied interests and reading preferences deserve to be honoured and extended. In addition, the data suggests that if teachers are to teach for the ‘maximum entitlement’ and develop readers for life (Martin, 2003), their knowledge of children’s poetry, picture fiction and global literature deserves considerable attention. Recent work about identities and reading suggests that the choice of books and teachers’ mediation of them has a profound effect on ‘how [children] see themselves and who they want to be’ (McCarthey and Moje, 2002). At the same time, teachers’ literate identities are becoming a focus for research (Moore, 2004).
There is also serious work to be done in bringing together more teachers and librarians. This will be a key aim in the second phase of this work, which is a UKLA professional development project in five Local Authorities, designed to develop children’s pleasure in reading through enriching and extending primary teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature, their confidence and reflective use of such literature in the classroom and their relationships with librarians and parents.
As an Association UKLA is dedicated to the promotion of education in literacy and in this project Teachers as Readers: Building Communities of Readers will seek to work with schools, communities and local authorities to build on findings from the first phase, develop innovative practice and promote reading for purpose and pleasure.
The UKLA SIG members who conducted this research were Teresa Cremin of The Open University; Eve Bearne of Cambridge University; Prue Goodwin of the University of Reading; and Marilyn Mottram of Birmingham LA.
For a copy of the full report and more information regarding Phase II plans see www.ukla.com.
Clark, C and Foster, A (2005) Children’s and young people’s reading habits and preferences: the who, what, why, where and when, National Literacy Trust
DfES (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading, London: HMSO
McCarthey, S J and Moje, E B (2002) ‘Identity Matters’, Reading Research Quarterly, 37:2 pp228-238
Martin, T (2003) ‘Minimum and maximum entitlements: literature at key stage 2’, Reading Literacy and Language, 37:1 pp14-17
Medwell, J, Wray, D, Poulson, L and Fox, R (1998) Effective Teachers of Literacy: A Report of a Research Project Commissioned by the Teacher Training Agency, Exeter: University of Exeter
Moore, R (2004) ‘Reclaiming the Power: literate identities of students and teachers’.Reading and Writing Quarterly, 20:4 pp337-342
Sainsbury, M and Schagen, I (2004) Attitudes to reading at ages nine and eleven, Journal of Research in Reading, 27, 373-386
Twist, L et al. (2003) Reading all Over the World, PIRLS, National Report for England, NFER/DfES: Slough