Cliff Moon, editor of a new guided reading scheme, talks to Tom Deveson about his lifelong affair with literacy
Cliff Moon can remember learning to read because it was difficult.
When he left the infants as a little boy in Accrington 50-odd years ago, he was still "only on Beacon Book 3", while other children - and he can still recall their names - were "already on Book 6".
But Cliff had stories in his head. There was a local public library, the new Eagle comic had just appeared and Toytown was on BBC Children's Hour. By the time he was 11, he so loved reading that - absorbed in Brother Dusty Feet, Rosemary Sutcliff's classic story of strolling Elizabethan players - he could ignore his headmaster repeatedly and urgently calling his name.
As a young teacher, Cliff drew on these lessons of his own past. He wanted pupils to assimilate their reading skills from the experience of going through books for pleasure, and he made sure that real stories would be a prime source of that sense of perpetually renewable enjoyment.
His career took him from schools to university lecturing and a vast range of writing and editing. Now one of the country's most respected experts on literacy, he has almost become a brand name to some younger teachers.
"Please can somebody tell me what Cliff Moon is?" was a question asked recently at The TES Staffroom online forum. This was a reference to Cliff's annual guide to Individualised Reading (National Centre for Language and Literacy), the indispensable listing of the readability levels of thousands of children's books whose 36th edition will appear soon.
The simple but powerful idea behind the guide is that children need autonomy as readers. They know more than we often give them credit for (Cliff has noticed it again watching his grandchildren take to books) and we should trust them to read what they want. If we allow them to choose, but provide a framework that ensures that "disruptions to fluency" are kept to a minimum and are picked up by miscue analysis, we are serving them well. This means that reading materials need to be written in natural language with all its graces and subtleties, not in the colourless repetitive formulae of some reading schemes.
Cliff is delighted with the fact that we now have a wealth of good books to choose from, and is alert to the expanding nature of literacy in a world where grandparents can text jokes or email anecdotes to children. He is a passionate and convincing advocate of flexibility: "It's admirable to colour-code books, but it's not meant to be restrictive."
Levels should not be labels. Children should be able to miss out a book they don't like the look of and choose an interesting one, even if it means jumping temporarily from a green to an orange sticker.
In developments like the DfES policy document Excellence and Enjoyment, which explains the aims of the National Primary Strategy, Cliff sees hopeful signs that we are at last remembering that reading is too important a matter to be turned into a series of test-driven anxieties.
There is extraordinary pressure on UK children to be reading fluently by the age of seven. Finland has among the highest reading standards in Europe, yet their children only begin school at seven.
"There is little point in our investing in technical proficiency, without fostering positive attitudes to books," he says. He ruefully quotes a boy in Year 2, asked why he was learning to read, who replied: "So I can stop."
The new Collins Big Cat series, which Cliff has edited, puts his beliefs and principles into practice. It seems to come from the world of children's books rather than from educational publishing, with authors such as Michael Morpurgo, Julia Donaldson, Rose Impey and Martin Waddell, and a fine collection of illustrators.
Though it's carefully graded for readability, the language is full of irony, mischief, allusions, puns and rhymes. Cliff speaks of the reader as being "in cahoots with the author and illustrator". There is fun in such detail as the little mice who observe but don't join in Goldilocks's adventures, or the way ellipsis can be used to play games with our expectations about what a text will turn into.
Cliff's advice to new teachers is well worth hearing: "Remember that all children are different and their learning is seldom linear" - which is why the Big Cat books allow for a whole universe of tastes.
"Create an ethos where reading is seen as a problem-solving activity", where children try many different methods of finding meaning in an unknown word, from back-tracking and reading on to exploring the suggestions offered by syntax. And, above all, "Show that teachers enjoy reading too".
If that enthusiasm for literacy is truly contagious, Cliff Moon is the person to catch it from. The little boy from Accrington and the semi-retired academic guru are still in vital touch with each other, animating the world of books for countless readers of the future.
lCollins Big Cat, a guided reading resource for four to seven-year-olds published this month, will be reviewed later this term www.collinseducation.com