In a recent OECD report, the UK was ranked 47th out of 65 nations in a table based on the number of teenagers who pick up a book, newspaper or magazine on a daily basis. It seems from the Data that only four-in-10 teenagers in this country fail to read for enjoyment outside school. The Daily Telegraphy reports that our secondary pupils are less likely to read than those who live in Kazakhstan, Albania, Indonesia and Peru. This is the kind of news that should make Teachers and Parents more than a little concerned. Reading for pleasure is the guaranteed way of improving vocabulary, comprehension, reflection, wisdom and well-being. With so much evidence in the UK that children’s learning has been brought to its knees, it’s probably time some best practice got some noise in the blog.
There is a nice Arnold Lobel children’s story about the value of friendship, involving the central cast in his children’s book ‘Frog and Toad Are Friends’ (1970). Toad loses a button, and takes Frog on a previous journey, on a thankless and zany search for the missing button. On returning home, the button is discovered and the Toad, now somewhat chagrined, makes Frog a coat as reward for his troubles, covered with all the buttons they found on the way! Young children listen to fables such as this fascinated, not just by the superficial story, but by the insights into a deeper understanding of the human condition reading such stories brings. And they’ll remember the tale for a lifetime. Such reading is known as deep reading, the same type of reading style you need to adopt for reading poetry, Shakespeare and good literature. Slowing down, losing yourself in the text, immersing in the ideas that such an activity brings to the surface is the essence of deep reading.
But the kind of reading described here is wholly different to the parallel skill we need to ensure our pupils develop, that being the ability to skim across the digital highway, to make choices of appropriate information in a sea of data, so that we can synthesise, analyse and evaluate, to make intelligent and informed answer for our solution to a complex problem. Now this ability to graze is not one brought to the surface by the arrival of the world-wide web, indeed it goes back to the time of Caxton, with the invention of the printing press and the tide of publications that then followed. It’s just so much easier now to ‘crop’ the answers without needing to understand them.
For what the web offers our children is instant knowledge for questions posed, “I’ll google it, Sir”, followed by click, download and ‘present’. Such a response was visible in the homework produced anew, when Encarta first appeared for the PC’s hard drive, when photocopiers appeared in libraries, indeed when Britannica arrived in the home library and of course before that, at each stage when technology arrived to make ‘work’ less onerous. If there is a repository of knowledge available somewhere nearby, then we’ll suspend judgment on its usefulness and just ‘own’ that work as if our own. Job done, time to move on to something more important than ‘copying’ from the ‘board’. Hmmm.
So here’s the rub; pretty much of all of a child’s life at school in the UK has been determined by the short-term goals of reaching a level, maintain that level in tests and assessments and them raising up a step to the next level from one age group transfer to the next. As a secondary school, all primary ‘feeders’ are able to tell us that their output always reaches Level 4 in English, often Level 5. I am not the only secondary school leader who feels that the Literacy strategy, well-intentioned for sure, has produced a Houdini trick of monumental proportions, conning us that their children are well-educated, when they are just well ‘tested’. Children may come into Year 7 very well ‘levelled’, but no way equipped with the skills to read and write properly.
And the problem is of course that the children have been encouraged along the way by both praise and fortune; they have done what has been asked of them and success has followed. What a pity we did not actually ensure that they learned for themselves what pleasures and pitfalls exist when undertaking depth studies; times when children are left to their own devices by the teacher in the classroom, architect of course of the learning environment but not of the instructor forcing in the knowledge. During my early years of headship, Year 6 pupils would arrive at Claires Court for interview, carrying with them their folder called ‘Topic’. The best would be able to take me through a marvelous journey of discovery, threading historical, scientific and geographical ideas, stitched together with good language and great handwriting – no wordprocessing in those days.
So looking forward, our secondary schools have to loosen their curriculum, ensure there are plenty of discovery days for children to visits and explore real places where history happened, where geography and science are being made, but couple that with ordered time in the classroom, where actually the children have the opportunity to sit and read. It’s odd now in our target infested world, just how many children feel that they have the right to interrupt and misbehave in class; such behavior immediately destroys the environment in which such deep reading and contemplation happens. You can see at a glance though why countries with much lower standards of living have better readers; the night-time distractions of PC and games machine simply don’t exist, and family values can’t include the installation of flat screens and wireless home networks to permit 24 hour edutainment on demand.
Parents need to brave enough to ensure that over an hour before lights out, children are withdrawn from electronic gadgetry, not just PC or games machine, but TV and sound system too. Deprived of stimulation, the inquisitive mind will turn to easy reading, any reading, often repetitive, through which a love of reading slowly, and for pleasure is developed. Picture the acquisition of any complex skill; it takes time and care to get it right, but once learned, never unlearned. And for such rules to be hard-wired into the family psyche, we need parents know this – not just a ‘nice to do if we were not so busy’ but a ‘need to do for our child’s whole emotional and intellectual well-being’. How hard an ask is that?