It started with a phone call from my local radio station, BBC Radio Leeds. What did I think about children learning poetry by heart, they asked. Huh? Was my highly articulate reply. The truth was I didn’t have a worked out opinion, but learning poetry by heart is one of the proposals in the new Gove paper on primary education, and so (the radio station reckoned, not unreasonably) as a children’s writer, and one who regularly goes into schools, I really ought to have a view.
So, I read the proposals. I went on air. And I’ve been stunned by the conviction – almost vitriol – that seems to characterise the debate. Learning poetry was an essential art, inducting children into the rhythm of the language, giving them discipline and the lasting gift of verse that their grandparents enjoyed, one side thundered. Drilling kids in poetry was a regressive step, designed to humiliate them, and destroy their love of learning, thundered the other. The trouble is, as with most educational debates, it never seems to me as cut and dried as the opposing camps suggest. It could be a good idea. But a lot depends on the way it’s done.
Around the same time, the Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, was circulating a petition for children’s writers to sign, condemning the provisions on phonics in the same government document. (Read the petition here.) Once more, I felt uncomfortable. Rosen is one of the most articulate critics of Gove’s approach to education in general.
But...my own impression is that phonics can be helpful. I doubt that - as Rosen sometimes seems to imply – exposure to storytelling and being surrounded by books is enough to get kids reading. Not at first. I’ve watched my own child learn to read. I’ve talked to other parents. And I’ve talked to dyslexia tutors, who often advocate a structured approach.
Above all, as a writer, I’ve visited plenty of primary schools, and met the children who are struggling to read at a level appropriate to their age. That’s desperately sad.
It’s left me feeling that, as a children’s writer, I’m not confident to weigh in on reading methodologies. The important thing is not ideology, but what works. I’d like others to make that decision, based on the very best evidence out there. (Not an easy task I know.)
Where I DO have a strong conviction, and where I strongly agree with Michael Rosen’s petition, is on the importance of reading for pleasure. Once children have mastered the basics of reading – by whatever methodology – they need to enjoy it. Otherwise they won’t read. And they must, if they are to become truly literate, educated people, capable of understanding the world around them – the world that lies beyond their own narrow experience.
As many people, including Michael Rosen and the Society of Authors, have pointed out, it is scandalous that the government, which is so ready to impose targets and objectives generally, is prepared to give no more than lip-service to the idea of “reading for pleasure”. The government acknowledges the vast body of research supporting its importance. Every school should be encouraging it, they say. Yet none of the concrete measures needed to encourage it are in place.
What is needed? It’s simple really.
- Every school should have a library. Schools make space for computers – but books are far cheaper, and what children need if they are going to read is books.
- Every school should have a librarian. Somebody on the staff of every school should have the job of understanding which children’s books are out there, choosing the stock, and guiding the children to the books that might interest them. That also means they need the budget and the training. It shouldn’t depend on luck – that there is somebody on the teaching team that has that special interest – as it does at the moment.
GET THE BOOKS TO THE CHILDREN
It’s not rocket science. It’s something surely on which we can all agree.
Emma's latest book is Wolfie.