Love of language in a cold climate

18th March 2005 at 00:00
How can we instil a passion for reading and writing in children? Do we risk killing it with the current curriculum? Writers and academics meet today in Glasgow to debate the issue at a conference organised by the Scottish Book Trust. Elizabeth Buie reports

Once upon a time, children acquired a love of books on their mother's knee. To be more precise, it was the story-telling tradition practised by parents or grandparents that created a lifelong bond with the written word.

"The most persuasive way to encourage a child to read and to have a love of stories is for the person who does the reading to be someone they love and respect - the mother, father, granny, uncle - someone whom they really care about," says Michael Morpurgo, the Children's Laureate.

"That story then is something shared between the older person and the younger person, almost like a love link between the generations, and it carries an affection with it."

When Morpurgo was a boy in the 1940s, his love of language was nurtured by his mother, an actress, who, he says, read stories very beautifully. In those days, the only sources of stories were books and the radio. Now, of course, children have every conceivable and technological access to stories, usually visual and very fast-moving.

But Morpurgo's experiences at school very nearly killed his love of literature stone dead: the "endless tests", having to learn poems and then stand up and recite them, comprehension tests, and having "questions fired at you about stories you are supposed to have loved".

"They sliced it up into fragments and chopped it all up. It left you with the cold feeling that this was nothing but an exercise you had to go through at school," he says.

Morpurgo fears that the school curriculum, as it stands, may be killing a love of books, and he is not alone. A number of leading academics will address the issue today, at "Confident Creativity: Futures in Literature and Learning", a conference on the teaching of reading and writing in Scottish schools, being held at Strathclyde University by the Scottish Book Trust (in association with TES Scotland).

Morpurgo argues that, while it is important to teach pupils comprehension, spelling and punctuation, many of the lessons will bore them to death if they don't understand in the first place what they are for. That, he emphasises, is why teachers must inculcate in children a love of words.

Then the knowledge base - the way in which we make literature and comprehend it - will make sense.

"The child will want to acquire a sense of punctuation and grammar because if they love the story in the first place they will want to do it. What you can't say is: 'Here is punctuation; learn it.'"

How, then, can teachers instil that love of words? Inviting authors into classrooms is one way, and Morpurgo has spent hours of story-telling in schools across the length and breadth of Britain. Encouraging teachers to read more children's literature themselves, so that they can read more to their pupils and encourage them to do more independent reading, is another.

A research programme into literature circles - book groups for children where they read their own chosen text by stages and then discuss everything from plot and characterisation to use of language together - is being run in five schools in South Lanarkshire across classes ranging from P4 to S1. Jim Allan, senior lecturer in Strathclyde University's department of childhood and primary studies, is running the research to evaluate whether claims made in the United States for the success of literature circles have a real basis. He and his colleagues hope to measure the impact they have on pupils' attitudes to reading.

Mr Allan echoes some of the Children's Laureate's concerns about how language is taught in schools.

"A lot of time that should have been given to writing creatively has been given over to decontextualising, grammar and punctuation. We have almost swung back to an over-emphasis on language," he says.

His question to teachers taking part in in-service courses on writing is:

"Do you read to children and do they read independently in class?" Usually, the answer he gets back is that there is no time in an overcrowded curriculum.

His fingers are crossed that the current review of the curriculum, which has the stated aim of de-cluttering the 5-14 guidelines, will examine the place of language in the curriculum and make it less compartmentalised.

A self-confessed "punctuation nerd", he does not advocate that teachers stop teaching punctuation, grammar and spelling, rather that they fit them into more meaningful contexts. He emphasises the need to place a high value on publication and giving children an audience for their work.

His colleague, Sue Ellis, points to recent findings in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) study which showed that 15-year-olds who read large quantities of books for enjoyment have much higher attainment. They suggest that significant engagement in reading can lift the attainment of children from the lowest socio-economic class to match that of middle-class children who are only middle readers.

"If we are interested in the long tail of under-achievement in Scotland, it is not just important to teach them how to read but make them want to read so that they are reading a lot," she says.

Making reading part of the social fabric is no easy task, she admits.

"There are lots of different factors that you have to make work, and it doesn't always make for easy headlines," she says.

While language experts such as Morpurgo, Allan and Ellis argue that children need to read more books as they embark on their education, Raymond Soltysek, a member of Strathclyde University's department of language education and author of short stories and screenplays, argues that at the post-16 stage there should be more emphasis on pupils' own writing, whether creative or functional, and on talk.

He worries that the English Higher course is too reading centred and the way it is assessed may make reading "something that has to be got through - a series of hurdles - in order to get a certificate".

He believes the National Qualifications neglect writing and offer no incentive for children to write well. The Higher English external exam, for instance, is made up of a close reading paper followed by a literary criticism paper. With creative and report-style writing confined to national assessment banks, which are internally assessed on a passfail basis, this gives pupils the message that it makes no difference whether they produce good writing or adequate writing, he argues.

"If I had a child who wanted to be a journalist or a novelist I can see no reason for them to do Higher English," he says.

Writing has to be given much more of a place, he says, and should be part of the external exam, counting towards the final grade.

"The course we have just now is really not equipping children for 21st-century literacy. There is not enough breadth of language use and not enough of all of the literacies, such as ICT and emotional literacy. They are not being catered for by Higher English, which has become a rather sterile course," he says.

"A lot of this comes down to having an effective language across the curriculum programme, which should not just be done in English literacy skills but should be emphasised across the curriculum."

The picture is not completely bleak, in his eyes, however.

"What I have been very pleased about is the reaction of teachers. I have run in-service courses in creative writing and teachers are committed to coming to these.

"Despite the fact that writing is something the curriculum largely ignores, they are coming along to find new ways of encouraging creative writing.

Teachers are concerned and they are doing something about it themselves."

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