‘Books – proper books – in all their richness, completeness and variety – lie at the heart of real achievement in both reading and writing’ writes Chris Powling in his contribution to Waiting for a Jamie Oliver: Beyond bog-standard literacy , a polemical collection of essays that challenges current literacy strategies. Is the National Literacy Strategy flawed as this booklet claims? Henrietta Dombey discusses.
At 28 pages, this sequel to Meetings with the Minister (Powling et al., 2003) is not a long read. It is a collection of broadsides, delivered at those responsible for determining the experience of literature that children receive in England’s schools. Taken together they add up to a mighty statement, that ‘books – proper books – in all their richness, completeness and variety – lie at the heart of real achievement in both reading and writing.’ (Powling, this volume, p.26). To treat them as anything other than complete entities, to be savoured with pleasure, is to deny their purpose and nature.
This is hard to argue against. Research evidence points to the power of the whole book to initiate children into the power of the written word. A recent research project carried out in a range of London primary schools, demonstrates clearly how children’s language, and their sense of what it is possible to say and mean expand in diverse and vivid ways as skilful teachers engage them with texts that reverberate for them all (Barrs and Cork, 2001).
Powerful books draw children in, inspire them and give them space to wander in others’ worlds. They invite children to take sensuous pleasure in words, try on other ways of using language, explore others’ experience and sometimes come to a better understanding of their own. This is not to be wondered at: the books of skilled authors are created as complex wholes, where one part grows out of and depends on another, where the meaning of a passage comes in part from the reader’s knowledge of what has gone before, and the promise of what is to come after.
To experience a book as a whole is a necessary condition for what Rosenblatt terms ‘aesthetic reading’, which involves ‘sensing, feeling, imagining, thinking under the stimulus of the words’ (Rosenblatt, 1978). It also involves relating what one reads to one’s own experience, interpreting each in the light of the other. So this is not idle reading, a lazy alternative to the serious business of study, but a different kind of study, one that can yield vast treasures for those who engage in it, of which pleasure is an essential part. As Philip Pullman puts it on page 9, ‘True education flowers at the point when delight falls in love with responsibility’.
Fundamentally flawed thinking
So how have we got to such a situation where, in our primary schools, books are quarried for short passages to illustrate particular sentence structures or word choices? Why is giving children an extract to work on seen as superior to giving them a story or book of poems to take pleasure in and make some personal sense of? Why deny the author the right to be read for what she or he has to say?
I think there are various reasons. At base, there is a fundamentally flawed way of thinking about children’s language development, which confuses analysis – or labelling – with production. This idea underlies the National Literacy Strategy. It is that to use any structure in their writing, children have first to be able to recognise and label it.
So, regardless of the fact that most of them have been using these structures (in some form) in their speech since they were four years old, children must be taught in Year 4 to construct adjectival phrases. This is where the literary extract comes in. Children will be asked to search through a photocopied extract from some author’s book to identify the grammatical feature of the week. This is probably their first experience of this passage: they have no notion of what it does in the book. The idea that the choice and force of the writer’s adjectival phrases may depend on what else is happening in the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter or the story is nowhere considered. Identification and labelling is the name of the game. Then worksheets must be completed, slots filled with children’s own adjectival phrases. They might then be rewarded for similar phrases in their own writing (although probably not in their science or maths lessons).
But it is the children who read and re-read whole books, for purposes that resonate with those of the authors who wrote them, who savour the words through which worlds are created, who are the ones who then produce the richest adjectival phrases, and know when to use them. After a sequence of lessons experiencing Henrietta Branford’s Fire, Bed and Bone (1997), through hearing it read aloud, reading it and dramatising parts of the story, 10-year-old Sophie, whose previous writing has been decidedly mundane, starts her own account of the cat’s perspective on the Branford story with the words: ‘I heard the Wolves again last night, howling at the tops of their voices, long and loud, big and bold.’ Not only is her use of adjectival phrases assured, she has also acquired a command of non-finite clauses that her teacher would find it hard to define. Perhaps even more importantly, she has learned something of the process of luring a reader into her world. She is not writing to a template or a set of instructions, but as a result of imaginative engagement with a powerful text.
Another pernicious influence on what happens to literature in our classrooms is the ‘tick box’ approach to assessment of both children and teachers. To be judged as a ‘Level 4’ writer, a child needs to display a collection of features such as ‘vary sentences for purpose and effect’, which, individually, may seem unexceptionable, but which add up to a ‘painting by numbers’ approach to teaching English. The emphasis on assessment has distorted the process of teaching to the point where ‘getting a Level 4’ has become an end in itself, for both child and teacher. In an age when technology is breaking down barriers between people and institutions all over the world, education in England has become an almost entirely self-referential process. What you do in school today is not intended to help you get on better in the world outside school, but instead to contribute to your progress in school tomorrow, next term and all the years after that.
But although they may not prepare children for it, schools are not insulated from the wider world. We live in a society in the habit of chopping things up and ‘reconstituting’ them, books included. Rather than whole books, student teachers are given articles, chapters, and bits of chapters to read. Newspapers print extracts from books. TV reports deal in soundbites. The internet, the source of an increasing proportion of information, deals in short pieces. Often this is useful. I use Google frequently to establish facts. But it can be dangerous, as a short passage, torn from its context, may be hard to understand, or even easily misunderstood.
Where works of literature are concerned, and especially for inexperienced readers, the practice of slicing and dicing is more than unhelpful. Why try to do anything with the parts before you have felt the force of the whole? Almost the only justification must be to choose an extract to whet the appetite for tackling the whole (or to decide the reader against it).
Allies in the world of education
In their meetings with Ministers, noted names of children’s literature have advanced these and other arguments, cogently presented in this volume, but had little satisfaction. However, they do have allies in the world of education. Many teachers, inspectors, advisers and teacher educators are concerned at the poverty of book culture in our schools. Some of them work for the National Strategy. Some for the QCA. Ofsted has noted the absence of books in the lives of underachieving primary schools (Ofsted 2004). The National Literacy Trust has been hugely successful in recruiting schools to its Reading Connects project (with both funds and endorsement from the DfES), where the emphasis is on reading for pleasure and personal significance (www.literacytrust.org.uk/readingconnects/index.html).
My only real quarrel with this booklet is its title. While various groups and individuals are doing their best, we need some co-ordination, and we need to do it ourselves. We can’t afford to stand by and let this snipping and chopping carry on, while we wait for a young man with a disarming smile and a lively turn of phrase to make a series of TV programmes about it. The challenge is now for all of us involved with children, schools or children’s literature to work together to give books back their proper place in the classroom. We could start by making constructive use of the new, more generous approach to teaching the primary strategy, to ensure that children’s encounters with books in school are richer, more complete and more widespread than they are at present. We have a long way to go.
Henrietta Dombey is Professor Emeritus of Literacy in Primary Education, University of Brighton.
Barrs, M. and Cork, V. (2001) The Reader in the Writer: The links between the study of literature and writing development at Key Stage 2 . London: Centre for Literacy in Primary Education
Branford, H. (1997) Fire, Bed and Bone . London: Walker Books
Powling, C., Ashley, B., Pullman, P., Fine, A. and Gavin, J. (2003) Meetings with the Minister . Reading: National Centre for Language and Literacy
Ofsted (2004) Reading for Purpose and Pleasure . London: Ofsted Publications
Rosenblatt, L. (1978) The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The transactional theory of the literary work . Carbondale Il: Southern Illinois University Press.
Waiting for a Jamie Oliver: Beyond bog-standard literacy edited by Chris Powling with contributions from nine other luminaries of children’s literature (2005) Reading: National Centre for Language and Literacy (28pp, 0 7049 9848 3, £4.95). Available from the National Centre for Language and Literacy, The University of Reading, Bulmershe Court, Reading RG6 1HY.
Michael Rosen’s contribution to this booklet, ‘Are Books for Children Worth Reading?’ was also published in Books for Keeps No. 154.