Let's not over-encourage

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
Compulsory parental involvement could stifle a child's passion for reading, argues Joanna Williams.

One of the few things I remember about my primary school was the white line painted across the path leading up to the school's reception. A notice alongside announced that parents were not to cross the line - only children were allowed past that point. In fact, the notice was not needed; few parents seemed to have any desire to go within 100 metres of the classroom.

Things could not be more different today. When the multi-lingual "Welcome" signs don't do the trick, a bit of friendly coercion seems to be called for. Some schools have compulsory contracts for parents, and the Government has called for compulsory attendance at parents' evenings and parental involvement in literacy.

But I'm sceptical about the benefits of so much parental involvement. Let's take literacy as an example. It may seem common sense to suggest that parents should read with their children - my parents read to me, my father taught me to read, and it didn't do me any harm. The problem is that when my dad taught me to read it was an extra, on top of what I was getting at school. I had a literacy input from school and home that was always different, often confusing and sometimes contradictory. I survived and read anything I could get my hands on.

People might say that I was lucky and that all the Government wants to do is to make sure that every child gets this opportunity. But it doesn't work like that. Parents who want to help their children and are in a position to do so are already helping them. Overworked parents spend money on private schools and tutors. Parents who did not have a good experience of school and who are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are not in a strong position to support their own child's learning. To suggest they are, is to risk limiting the child to the educational level of the parent. Most teachers recognise that parents who have poor literacy cannot help their children fully without some extra help for the parents' level of literacy.

In the Coventry-based SHARE programme, reception teachers work alongside parents. There is a danger that some teachers end up not only having to teach a class of 30 children how to read, but having to teach 30 or more parents how to read as well.

When I was at primary school, I remember ploughing through what seemed like hundreds of "reading scheme" books. I loved reading at home precisely because it was one of the few things I had the freedom to pursue on my own. I chose the books myself and entered my own fantasy world of Swallows and Amazons and The Famous Five.

Compulsory parental involvement could stifle a child's passion about reading. Yes, children want their parents to take an interest. But even very young children need space to read on their own, to think and to fantasise. It's not just rebellious teenagers who react badly to parental over-encouragement. Forcing parents to read to their children could discourage a generation of potential readers.

There are undoubtedly advantages to home-school literacy partnerships, but let's be completely honest about what they are. Teaching parents to read is not something to be underestimated, but let's leave primary teachers to do what they do best - teach children.

Joanna Williams teaches in a Birmingham secondary.

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