Being book-free worries me

29th October 2010 at 01:00

While children delight in being read aloud to by their teachers, that may not be enough. Differences in attainment can arise for lots of reasons: a child may not possess the particular type of intelligence which Howard Gardner argues lies behind success in school learning. Alternatively, the child's home life could mean they witness disturbing disputes between their parents. The anxiety that this breeds in the child affects their span of attention and priorities.

Abraham Maslow, the psychologist of motivation, tells us that, unless certain needs in his hierarchy of needs are being satisfied, those further up the pyramid cannot be.

Frequent personal engagement with books might be one of the key foundations for the growth of the four capacities in Curriculum for Excellence. From repute, we know that books can and do influence lives profoundly. Authentic progression through CfE probably hinges upon a child becoming personally erudite. Erudition can lead to enlightened values.

Research evidence underlines the fact that children who are not read to at home do less well at school. Compared with their peers who experience books as part of family life, they lag behind.

Books are a powerful factor in whether a child experiences a fruitful education. They impact on the child in uniquely valuable ways. A book is not a mere physical object with marks in it: it is an entity like an alien space ship, capable of transporting the child's imagination and resources well beyond the here and now.

Educational policy has led schools away from books. Worksheets proliferate. Children learn to associate reading with decoding A4 worksheets. Some might never break free from this conditioning and will develop an aversion to, not a fondness for, books. Books sit in open areas and at the back of classrooms, on the boundaries of the dominant classroom discourse.

Children cannot develop a relationship with books if their routine encounters merely involve worksheets. The image that this task-driven environment conjures up is of reading as a tool to get work done. Much more valuable and enduring learning would be facilitated if the child did not conceive of reading in this highly instrumentalist way. Treasuring and enjoying books, upon which considerable independent learning occurs, is what we ought to nurture. If this attitude is acquired, it will carry forward across generations.

Is it any wonder that, in the book-free "reading world" of schools, many children experience a double whammy: books are not part of their home life, nor are they incorporated in a deep and pervasive way into classroom activity.

Welcome to the parallel world of contemporary schooling. On the one hand, researchers stress the impact of books being read at home on a child's educational progress; on the other hand, the state guarantees only a fleeting experience of books at school. And when reading does occur, it is only as a means to achieve a prescribed learning outcome.

The assumption behind all this is that, in a digital world, we need only to read online. Today's children are being prepared for that sterile vision. While they might appear to fulfill the four capacities, the depth of that achievement will be shallow.

Chris Holligan is a reader at the University of the West of Scotland.

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