Socialist Worker

Michael Rosen explains how not to bore the pants off kids

The government’s ‘literacy strategy’ takes all the fun out of reading and doesn’t work. Michael Rosen proposes an alternative approach

Issue No. 2091

Over the last ten years or so, the government has brought a regime into schools that has battened down on teachers to teach reading and writing in a way that bores teachers and bores kids.

What’s more, evidence has come out over the last few months that it doesn’t work.

The government has reduced the whole exciting, entertaining, uplifting world of books to what they call “literacy”.

Then they created a testing system which narrows this down to a set of questions about the so-called facts of stories and poems which emphasise the idea that the best a child can do with a story is to get its logic and order right.

The results of the tests (SATs) are published so a school’s worth is measured against the school’s SATs results.

The consequence of this is that schools are teaching to the SATs. When teachers look at stories and poems, they immediately start asking the children SATs-type questions – spot the adjectives in this poem, what happened next in the story, and so on.

Teachers are forced to spend less time reading and enjoying stories and poems and more time reading parts of stories and asking children “fact” questions.

This is a disastrous way to treat books and reading. Books are about ideas and feelings. We read in order to find out what it would feel like to be in this or that situation. We explore other people’s way of thinking and we look and how they and the society changes.

Reading small extracts from books, followed closely by “fact” questions, misses all this.

The government has introduced something else that detracts from what books are for – one hour a day, compulsory synthetic phonics teaching for all children between the ages of four and six.

This is to ensure, they say, that every child gets hold of what they call “the alphabetic principle” – showing children that letters correspond to the sounds we make with our mouths.

The problem with this is that English spelling is not regular. Many combinations of letters produce different sounds and a single sound we might make, can be spelt in several different ways (think of ‘ee’ in ‘sleep’, ‘ea’ in ‘lead’ and ‘ei’ in ‘receive’).

This means that synthetic phonics will never be enough to teach reading. We need other systems to learn how to read, such as learning whole words (known as “look and say”) and the only way we get the hang of that is reading from context, that’s to say, reading the words from understanding the meaning of the sentence, the paragraph and the story. The meaning is vital.

What follows is that we have to spend a great deal of time, thought and energy in working out how to make the meaning of what children read exciting, interesting and fun.

And here we have the key to it all. If we want children to read, we have to work out how to make book-loving schools and book-loving homes.

This means rethinking the whole matter of reading and writing. Schools should have the money to employ trained librarians and home-school reading liaison staff to work with parents on finding and reading interesting books.

Schools need time, advice and money helping teachers to get in the most exciting and interesting books and exploring the most interesting ways of reading them.

We need to dispense with the futile system of asking children questions that teachers already know the answers to.

Instead, we need to set up a space where we invite children to ask the people in a story questions that puzzle them and where other children can pretend to be those characters and try to answer the questions.

Books can also be seen as starting points for putting on shows, creating art, dance, music, film and

powerpoint displays. The work that children write shouldn’t be shut away in scrappy little exercise books but should be published and performed.

This way a connection is made in the children’s minds between the world of literature and their own ability to write.

The crazy thing is that we knew all this thirty years ago, but successive governments have got away with rubbishing it all. They even created the perfect democratic, professional structure (called Language in the National Curriculum, or LINC) where teachers, researchers and advisers came together to work out and publish the best kinds of classroom practice.

It started to become so successful (and threatening to their top-down, dictatorial methods) the government of the day scrapped it.

We need to fight for a return to the ways of LINC. This way teachers can research their own practice, share it with others and grow professionally as they work, rather than carry on with the present mind-numbing method of teaching by numbers.

And this is how reading and writing about our ideas and feelings can be put back at the heart of education.

Just as socialists fight for the right of people everywhere to be without war, poverty, exploitation and injustice, so we must fight for people of all ages to be able to express ourselves through what we read and write.


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Tue 4 Mar 2008, 19:06 GMT
Issue No. 2091
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