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Prescription puts 'curiosity and self-esteem at stake'

THE LITERACY hour has called time on children's pleasure in books, argues one of the country's top reading experts.

Margaret Meek, emeritus professor at London University's Institute of Education, says the prescription of word level, sentence level and text level work can be a barrier to exploration and discovery.

"There is now a view that one teaching method will do for every learner, " she said at a recent Royal Society of Arts conference to celebrate quality in children's books.

"The emphasis is placed on a basic instrumentalism that gives less importance to what reading is good for - what it can be like. What may now be at stake in learning to read is children's imaginative curiosity, expressiveness, even their self-esteem as learners and their pursuit of what they have become interested in, all of which are fostered by explorative reading of poems, stories and good documentary texts on screen or video."

Professor Meek was a contributor to Literacy is Not Enough, a recent collection of papers published by the Book Trust which took the Government's literacy strategy to task. At the conference, sponsored by WH Smith as its contribution to the National Year of Reading, she argued that "We need children's literature to move to the core of the literacy curriculum.

"Some reading lessons - interpretations, irony, that the words mean more than they say, can be learned best from authors and artists. Adults can communicate that, but not by simply harking back to an illusory golden age of literacy and literature."

Adults can also help by reading to children "well into late childhood", by ensuring that children see them enjoying books and by being prepared to update their own views on what and how children should read. "Great devotion to children and books" might lie alongside "old-fashioned ideas about reading".

"(Adults) know what reading of all kinds is good for, because we have done enough of it to discover its worth," said Professor Meek. "The information revolution . . . has increased the textual gap between adults and the children who are now learning to read and reading to learn.

"Children will fare better if they have a wide, reflexive experience of reading acts and reading events, probably not all of them in books."

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