Teachers get little opportuni-ty to learn about children's literature as there are relatively few training colleges offering it as part of their courses (there is no official total, but it's likely to be fewer than 15).
But a new scheme from Arts Council England should put children's literature back on the teacher-training agenda, and could radically alter how books are used in class.
The Arts Council wants to see teacher-training establishments and the Teacher Training Agency working hand in hand with the regional library infrastructure to deliver training to promote libraries, books, writers and reading to children.
Morag Styles, senior lecturer in the faculty of education at Cambridge university and reader in children's literature at Homerton College, says it is essential that teachers be well informed about children's literature - going into a classroom without that knowledge is, she says, like going in naked. "Probably the most important thing that children learn to do in primary school is to read. It will impact on every part of their lives," she says.
To encourage a child to enjoy that process, teachers need to have the best books at their fingertips. A research report ("The Reader in the Writer") from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education in south London supports the view that reading has a positive effect on children's writing and use of language.
"We found children becoming more confident managers of their own narratives and imagining their invented worlds in more detail," says its director Myra Barrs.
The right texts can bring the most functional learning to life. But reading is also important for a child's personal development, says Prue Goodwin, lecturer in literacy education at the University of Reading's institute of education.
Wayne Mills, senior lecturer at the school of education, University of Auckland, says: "Knowing about children's literature means that teachers can help children to see their lives reflected in their books. We often learn about ourselves from good literature.
"We can learn respect for the elderly from Michael Morpurgo's Kensuke's Kingdom (Egmont, pound;4.99), discover that not all adults will behave in set ways in Sharon Creech's Ruby Holler (Bloomsbury Children's Books, pound;5.99), or how to care for a best friend in Anne Fine's Up on Cloud Nine (Corgi, pound;4.99)."
The teachers' choice
Third year students
BA Primary Education (Hons)
School of Initial Teacher Training, University of Surrey, Roehampton Children's books form an essential component of the primary education course at the University of Surrey, Roehampton, and information about books is included in all subject courses. The college believes that stories can be just as helpful for putting across a scientific concept as for learning about grammar.
Fiona M Collins, co-ordinator of English education, believes it is essential for students to have an in-depth knowledge of children's books.
"Books allow children to understand their own worlds but also to experience and understand other worlds of those around them," she says.
Students are encouraged to use literature across all subject areas. The benefits become clear when they start working in the classroom, says student Tracey Challoner. "We've found out how Pamela Allen's Mr Archimedes' Bath (Longman, pound;14.50) can help children learn about displacement, and how Ronda amp; David Armitage's The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch (Scholastic, pound;4.99) can introduce how pulleys work."
Another student, Carrie Andrews, has been using "faction" books to help children to identify with historical characters such as Mary Tudor using Mary, Bloody Mary by Carolyn Meyer (Collins, pound;4.99). "Pupils can find out about what Mary Tudor's thoughts and feelings might have been as a child. For children who have no concept of time from 400-500 years ago, that's invaluable. And they love the gory bits in series like Horrible Histories (Scholastic) - they're great for boys."
Students agree that as a result of reading so many children's books, they can help their pupils to be more creative. "When you're doing shared writing lessons with the class and you're modelling the beginning, middle and end of a story, you can borrow other story structures and be much more adventurous," says Carrie.
Trainee teacher Carole Millard agrees that students' knowledge makes the literacy hour a more fulfilling exercise for pupils. "The published schemes are useful for certain things, but reading an extract is not going to help children to engage with stories. They'd be missing out if we didn't give them that love of reading and books."
By the time students at Roehampton finish their training, they are expected to have created their own database of about 100 titles - including books they've read and enjoyed.
"It's a lot of work but it'll be incredibly useful once I'm planning lessons full-time," says student Liza Sinclair. "When I need a book on a certain subject, I can just look it up rather than spending hours trying to find the right one for that lesson."
'Why authors should be used more in colleges'
Many of today's best-known writers started out as teachers, including Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy (Scholastic), and the children's laureate, Michael Morpurgo.
Their classroom days have given them first-hand experiences of the powerful effect literature can have on children. It is a subject that Morpurgo feels strongly about: "The first requirement for teachers, if they are going to help children to understand and love literature, is that they should be enthusiastic about reading it."
One of the best places to introduce this love of books is, he says, at teacher training college. He admits having little knowledge of children's books when he first went into teaching. "English was a heavy, fearful subject for me at school. It came down to analysis and criticism, and all the magic of the language left me."
Only when he started using literature to inspire children to write did he find inspiration himself. "Many teachers are very creative people - they need time to develop that in themselves."
Inviting authors to talk to students about their work during their training is a positive way to introduce literature to teachers before they enter the classroom. But Morpurgo regrets that he isn't asked to speak to student teachers more often. "Writers like me should be going into colleges, helping to spread a love of reading. We should be speaking to students up and down the country."
Philip Pullman agrees that teacher training should include "a large dose of children's literature", but says this is not the only answer. "It's not that they need a single, intensive, once-and-for-all course - more that they need to inculcate a habit of reading the new books, and re-reading the old ones."
This means giving teachers more free time to read, and access to books.
That requires proper consideration and funding for children's librarians and librarianship. "This is a dynamic thing and not a static one - knowledge needs to grow," he says.
Author Gillian Cross, creator of the Demon Headmaster series, says teacher-training colleges can only ever be the start of the process. "What I'd like to see being taught in colleges is not, 'Here are some good books'
- but people being engaged with the whole process."
Teachers don't just need a working knowledge of what's out there, she says:
"They need a real awareness of what literature can do for you, why it's important - otherwise they won't be able to share it with children. What teachers need to learn in college is how to have fun with books, be moved by books. That's what makes the best teachers."
In one school she visited, the head's love of literature was central to the school's ethos. "There was a rule that children had to have three books with them that they must be reading, one of which had to be short and easy.
He loved reading, and didn't want the children to miss out."
'Bring the story off the page into kids' lives'
Getting the right book to the right person at the right time is always a challenge - and never more so than at key stage 3, says Eileen Armstrong, learning resources manager at Cramlington community high school in Northumberland. That's why teachers need to know their stuff. "It's a huge responsibility to make or break a reader for life, and kids know when you haven't read the books you're recommending."
A good working relationship with the school librarian is often the starting point. Teachers can stay up-to-date by keeping on top of reading promotions - book quizzes, promotion days and book awards.
There are plenty of ways to bring books to life for young people. Those that have led to films, such as Holes (Bloomsbury, pound;5.99), are good for classroom discussions. Challenges such as The TES Kids' Lit Quiz, just successfully introduced to the UK by Wayne Mills, can help them to keep reading as can book awards, such as the Carnegie Medal, which encourage young people to take part in the judging process.
"It's about taking the stories off the page and into the lives of the kids, making them see reading as relevant and fun - for life," says Eileen Armstrong.
For details of the next Kids' Lit Quiz, email earmstrong @cchs.northumbria.sch.uk
YOUNG READER'S TOP 10
Recommendations from key stage 3 pupils at Cramlington community high school, Northumberland
* Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
* Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah
* The Garbage King by Elizabeth Laird
* Coraline by Neil Gaiman
* The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo
* Eagle Strike by Anthony Horowitz
* Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks
* Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
* Truth or Dare by Celia Rees
* Megan by Mary Hooper
WHAT TEACHER TRAINEES SAID
"David Almond has been popular with the children I'm working with, but the author I'd really recommend for older readers is Philip Pullman. I've just finished The Amber Spyglass - it's fantastic."
"I like anything a bit silly and Squids Will Be Squids and The Stinky Cheese Man (both by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith) turn stories upside down.
I use them for Year 2. The children really enjoy them."
"We're using Aquila by Andrew Norriss as a class reader in Year 3. It has helped to engage the boys who are not really into books. The main characters in the book aren't obvious heroes but evolve into them and the boys relate to that."
"I've used a lot of Julia Donaldson's books, such as The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom, because her rhyming is great and the text is beautifully illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Year 1 children also like Lauren Child because of her unconventional artwork."
"I'm reading Louis Sachar's Holes with Years 5 and 6. His invention and humour are very sophisticated. The class has really got into it, and they like the fact that it's also been made into a film."