Laureate bids adieu with attack on 'excerpt-itis'

10th April 2009 at 01:00
Micheal Rosen's anger at how reading has been sidelined in schools

Michael Rosen is scrolling through the messages on his mobile phone.

"Here it is," he grins.

A nine-year-old girl has contacted the children's laureate to find out the literary form of his poems "Something's Drastic" and "The Conversation".

Mr Rosen, whose term as laureate is coming to an end at the beginning of the summer, rails against a system in which literature is analysed by young children almost as soon as they can read.

"We should be aiming for a higher level of learning than finding a label for a poem," he says. "Labelling has become an obsession."

He does reply to the message, however. The poems are not in any particular form, he explains: "Something's Drastic" is a short, rhyming poem with a repeated refrain and "The Conversation" is a dialogue.

The reply reads: "Thank you so much, that really helped me. Maths next. Are you any good at division?"

He lets out a huge roar of laughter. Mr Rosen, 62, author of more than 140 books, a radio presenter, university lecturer and scourge of the one-size- fits-all lobby, shakes his head.

During his two-year laureateship, Mr Rosen has visited scores of schools, including a 10-week stint at Springwood Primary in Cardiff, where his efforts to transform pupils' reading habits were filmed for a BBC documentary.

He has also jointly curated an exhibition on children's poetry at the British Library; established the Roald Dahl Funny Prize; organised an A- to-Z anthology of children's poets; set up a YouTube channel for children's poetry; and lobbied ministers.

Has he learnt anything from his privileged position as official champion of children's literature?

He believes the way reading is taught between Years 4 and 9 is discriminatory, that it reinforces the divide between those who have learnt to love books and those who have not.

He is impatient with platitudes that many schools do wonderful things to encourage reading, he says, because that does not help those who don't or can't. He has met too many children who just "don't get it".

The problem, he says, is "excerpt-itis", which happens between Years 4 and 9 when reading comes to mean looking at extracts rather than whole books, and teachers feel they must feed children bite-sized examples of writing.

"I can tell in two or three minutes whether a child is a reader," he says. "It's the language they use, the questions they ask, whether they know about books. (Those that read) know authors are people who transform their lives, that things you read can be both the truth and a fib at the same time.

"You cannot learn that from extracts. They can see that I, as a writer, fit into a world of books."

And this "world of books" is a large and complicated place. Academics, teachers, advisers and authors argue, write reports, carry out research, build careers and forge reputations around teaching how to read and inspiring children to want to read. Despite this, many children still can't - and some simply don't want to.

So what can the children's laureate do that all these experts cannot?

Is it possible that schools are too busy implementing the prescriptive curriculum to instil a love of reading? Are five hours of lessons a day simply not long enough when one considers the sheer towering amount that needs to be crammed in?

Mr Rosen seems to think so. "Most teachers are appalled by `extract-itis', but trapped in it. Everyone is looking over their shoulders at Ofsted and Sats," he says.

"It's not enough for ministers to just say, `You can do it.' Teachers won't while they have Ofsted telling them they aren't doing enough persuasive writing because they're too busy reading to children."

It is not that the Government has done nothing. In 2008, Pounds 3.7 million was allocated to the National Year of Reading and Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, has told parents to read to their children for at least 10 minutes a day.

There is also the Bookstart scheme, part-funded by the Government, which gives free books to children at the ages of around seven months, 18 months and three. It is this organisation that manages the post of children's laureate.

While these initiatives are extremely worthwhile, Mr Rosen argues that the Government is responsible for a series of constraints - most notably key stage Sats - that limit their potential.

"Before becoming children's laureate, I hadn't thought it through," he says. "I'd be invited into schools, which was lovely, but now I've become more engaged with the issue.

"There are these organisations - such as Booktrust and the National Literacy Trust - who want to go into schools and create book-loving environments, but it's bizarre that this whole side of education has become something for charities to do.

"I support every one of those charities, but I don't understand why it's seen as a voluntary thing."

Whether he sees his work with pupils and teachers as voluntary or not, it is certain that Mr Rosen is not about to stop his involvement with schools when his laureateship comes to a close. And that includes answering texts about long division.

A passion for words

Michael Rosen was born in Middlesex in 1946.

His father, Harold, was a leading figure in English teaching based at London University's Institute of Education, while his mother, Connie, co- authored books with her husband about language and primary education.

Michael studied English language and literature at Oxford University.

His first work, a play called Backbone, was performed at the Royal Court theatre while he was still a student.

His first book of poetry, Mind Your Own Business, was published in 1974.

It was not originally written for children but appeared on the publisher's children's list, thereby starting a prolific career which has produced more than 100 books - mostly humorous - for youngsters.

Mr Rosen was one of the first authors to undertake regular school visits and is extremely popular for his lively and engaging manner.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt is perhaps his best-known book. Other titles include Michael Rosen's Sad Book, about the death of his son Eddie from meningitis at 18, Mustard, Custard, Crumble Belly and Gravy, You Wait Till I'm Older Than You and No Breathing in Class.

He presents the BBC Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth, and has also written and presented documentaries.

He has been married three times and has five children and two stepchildren.

Rosen on.

. Reading and homework

"Parents who read with their children and fill their houses with books produce the highest achievers. (Too many) parents are led to believe that it is the diligent doing of homework that will do the trick - which is not much more than form-filling and puzzles."

(`Death of the bookworm', article, 2008)

. Picture books

`I don't think this kind of brilliant invention will disappear. They are, however, in great danger of no longer being read by everyone."

(Patrick Hardy Lecture, 2007)

. Exam board AQA's decision last year to drop a poem by Carol Ann Duffy which referred to knife crime

"By this same logic we would be banning Romeo and Juliet. That's about a group of males strutting the streets . and stabbing each other."

(The Guardian, article, September 2008)

. Poetry

"Poetry gives children the chance to observe, investigate, reflect and play with words. Poetry treats words with the utmost respect and utmost disrespect. It says, `words are all' but also `words are for us to do whatever we want with them' - both at the same time."

(Poetry Society's 100 Poets in 100 Schools campaign, 2008).

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today