Saturday, January 19, 2008


Children's books: 'If children are to become readers for life, they must first love stories'


To introduce our guide to the best children's books, author Michael Morpurgo, writing in The Telegraph sets out the case for reading pleasure



We are in a muddle about literacy. We worry endlessly that children in Britain are not becoming readers. Report after report reveals that we are slipping further and further behind in child literacy levels when compared with other countries. Interesting that Finland finds itself at the top of a recent child happiness table as well as child literacy levels. More of Finland and happiness later.

I'm thinking that education itself is in part to blame. Ironically, it may be responsible both for the great blossoming of our literature, and at the same time for leaving so many with the impression that literature is not for them, but the preserve of a certain educated elite. As a consequence, much of our society has become separated from its own stories. This alienation can happen all too easily. Let me tell you a story.

There was once a boy brought up with books all around him. There were no walls in the house: just books, it seemed. At bedtime his mother would sit on the bed and read to him - Masefield, Kipling, Lear, De la Mare, Shakespeare - and the boy loved it because his mother loved it. He could hear it in her voice, in her laugh, in the tears in her eyes. He loved the fun, shared the sadness. He loved the music in the words. He never wanted storytime to end.
Then "unwillingly to school" he went, trudging the leafy pavements through pea-souper London smogs. From then on the stories were not magical, and they weren't musical either. Words were to be properly spelled, properly punctuated, with neat handwriting. They were not story words any more, but nouns and pronouns and verbs. Later they were used for dictation and comprehension, and all was tested and marked. A multitude of red crosses and slashes covered his exercise books, like bloody cuts.
A fear of words, a fear of failure, banished all the fun, all the magic. Every day more words died, until the evening this boy was taken to see Paul Schofield play Hamlet at the Phoenix Theatre, in London. He heard the music in the poetry and loved it again.

And then as a student at university he had a professor who sat on the corner of his desk and read Gawain and the Green Knight. As the professor read it he lived every word, loved every word. So did the student. Later, as a teacher in a primary school, the young man would read stories to his class at the end of the day, but only stories he loved. When he ran out of these, he made up stories of his own, and he became a story-maker and a writer. Now he cannot imagine a life without stories, reading them, making them.
After many years of teaching and writing he knows the difference stories can make to children's lives, and he has some ideas about how to renew the old association between ourselves and stories.

Our mindset has to change. We have to stop proclaiming reading as a ladder to academic success. Treated simply as an educational commodity, some kind of pill to be taken to aid intellectual development, it is all too often counter-productive and ultimately alienating.

Of course we must and should study literature in our schools, but first we have to imbue our children with a love of stories.

And to do that, parents and teachers have to have a passion for stories themselves: they have to pass it on. The children have to know that you mean it, you feel it, you love it. And a teacher needs to find the space - correction, the Government needs to give them the space in the curriculum - so that she or he can read stories to the children for at least half an hour a day.
Our teachers need the chance at college or university to come to know and love books. Let us train our teachers, not blame them. We have to unchain them, and trust them. It's the tests and the targets that inhibit them, that bring fear into the classroom when children are too young to cope with it.

In Finland they do things differently. Finnish children stay at home much longer. They play and tell stories years after ours are sitting down in school to a target-driven curriculum. Maybe that's partly why Finnish children are happier, and maybe that's why they rate higher in the literacy stakes. Maybe they haven't put the cart before the horse as we do. They give their children the time and space to grow up with stories, to enjoy them, so that the association develops slowly, organically, is not imposed.

We get ourselves all hot and bothered about the teaching of reading, about synthetic phonics and the like, and we forget that none of it is much use unless children want to read in the first place. The motivation must come first, horse before cart. We all know that unless a child is motivated to learn, then there will be apathy or resistance in the learning process. They are much more likely to want to deal with the difficulties of learning to read if they know it is these words that give them access to all these wonderful stories. If we really want our children to become readers for life, we would do well to remember that horses are much more fun than carts anyway.

A longer version of this article appears in the new issue of RSL - The Royal Society of Literature Review, published on 31st Jan. To obtain a copy visit http://www.rslit.org/

3 comments:

NZBookgirl said...

Isn't it time we campaigned for a children's laureate in New Zealand? There are many good candidates and we certainly need to work on further encouraging children to read and enjoy books. We have arts laureates and a poet laureate, how about starting at the beginning with the children?

Bookman Beattie said...

Totally agree.

Mary said...

I have a niece who is not really interested in reading. But because I love to read and want to share it with her, I have been researching books that would hold her interest. Before giving her some of the heavier classics I decided to get into her space and find out what she wanted to read. Since boys are her main interest right now, I thought that would be a great start. A book was recommened to me called, Queen Geeks In Love. It's a fun, funny, smart and interest keeping book. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, I think it's our responsiblity as adults to share books with our children. Spending time together and talking about what interests them.

Thank you for the posts and the book recommendations. I'll be back to check-in for more.

Aunt Mary