Do you like books?" Pause, as four-year-old child thinks for a few seconds. One of the problems of interviewing children as young as this is that their mind will not always address the question you ask. Eventually the answer comes. "My brother's seven." Oh well. Ask a silly question.
The study of individual children and their progress, or lack of it, is one of the most interesting elements of the Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project. Before Christmas, alongside our case studies of teachers and their teaching of literacy, we interviewed and observed more than 200 children aged four to 11 in a variety of schools, trying to find out what they are reading in class and at home, what strategies they employ when they get stuck on a word or if their book is too hard, who reads with them, what they actually do in the classroom, and several other aspects of learning to read.
"I can't read yet," five-year-old Simon told me confidently. "But when I'm six I'm allowed to read." The idea seemed to be that reading would come with the birthday presents. Other children are well aware that their own efforts will be required.
Some pupils are quite sophisticated in their choice of strategies, though there are marked differences between children, even in the same class, when asked what they would do if a book was too hard. Nine-year-old Gemma simply replied: "Put it back and read another one." Ian, on the other hand, gave a detailed description of cloze procedure. Actually, it was the "five finger test" which a former class teacher had taught him when he was younger. He could recall clearly just when to stick up his finger: ". . . every time (on a page) you get stuck on a word. If you get less than five, the book is just right for you. If you get more than five fingers up, it's too hard. If you get no fingers up, it's too easy."
As a researcher you have to be as objective as you can about what you see, but I cannot help feeling sad when talking to children who dislike reading. In answer to a question about whether they like reading, most children say that they do. They then describe what kind of books they particularly like.
Ten-year-old David screwed up his face in anguish, before pronouncing with great passion: "I hate it. I absolutely hate reading. It's boring. I just don't like it." Such was his dislike that when asked whether anybody ever read to him or to the class, he simply answered: "No". Only when pressed did he recall what all his fellows remembered easily, which was that the head often read stories in assembly and his teacher read to the class several times a week. For David, reading simply did not exist, he could wipe it from his memory banks. Except, that is, for his Liverpool comic, the only thing he ever read at home. He loved Liverpool Football Club and the comic was the only printed text that interested him.
I wonder what will have happened by the end of the school year. Will the various local education authority and school policies appear to have influenced what happens to these children inside and outside their own classrooms? Simon will be nearly six, so will he have learned to read before his sixth birthday? Will children with more strategies for improving their own reading do any better than those who appear to have fewer? Will David have branched out from his Liverpool comic and changed his negative mental set towards the printed word? There are numerous intriguing questions about individual children and I hope this project will throw a little light on a few answers.