Marc Lambert

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
The chief executive of the Scottish Book Trust talks about motivating children to read, the impact of Kindles and the importance of mandatory questions on Scottish texts in exams. Interview by Julia Belgutay

How do you define the role of the Scottish Book Trust?

We are here to inspire readers and writers. That is probably the single line. But we are also strongly committed to social justice by helping to equip people with the skills they need to progress in their lives. Within education, it is to provide creative opportunity for teachers and creative training.

Which book do you think has had the most influence on your life?

I don't think there could be any one book, but as a young man I was particularly inspired by Richard Holmes's biography of Percy Shelley. In that book, you have everything about literature and politics and how you lead your life. But there are many other books that influenced me, too.

Is there an essential book that should never be missing from the Scottish curriculum?

No. I think the thing about reading is that it's an adventure and the wider you go with that adventure, the better it is.

Do you think there is one book which is overrated?

No, usually the books that are chosen are great. But it's up to organisations such as the Scottish Book Trust and Education Scotland to provide teachers with the support to take up other opportunities and other books. I suppose if you are a teacher, and you have established a particular modus operandi with one book, it is easy to carry on with that book year after year. But I think that is sending the wrong message, and it's boring for the teacher.

The OECD analysis of the Pisa research suggests that Scottish pupils would do a lot better in literacy if they spent more time reading for pleasure. How do we make that happen?

To be controversial, I would say stop trying to teach children to read and write at the age of five. As we are finding out now through new research into the brain, most children just aren't ready physiologically. What therefore happens is that they start school and are presented with reading and writing as difficulty. Also, you can teach someone to read, but that does not make them a reader. I think we are currently confused about those two things. We think we have done our job if we have taught them to read, but actually our job is to make them readers. That's why the things we do, like the Children's Book Awards, are so important.

Do you think it is getting harder to motivate children to read?

Not particularly. It depends on the definition of reading. I don't think we should be getting stuck on a definition of reading which is tied to the book as a physical object. I think it is about establishing pleasurable habits, about reading stories with your child. Ultimately, a book is a story and people are hardwired to enjoy stories.

Julia Donaldson recently said Kindles and devices like that have a negative impact on children's reading - do you agree?

Julia is the patron of our early-years programme. However, I have to say, where is the evidence? I think it is a little early to tell, and I don't think we should be confusing the medium with the message. It doesn't really matter what platform you read on. What matters is what you are reading.

Which of the services the book trust provides for the education sector do you consider the most useful?

In terms of the scale in participation, you would look at our BBC Authors Live transmissions and opportunities like the Children's Book Awards. However, as far as teachers go, they probably also see a lot of value in the core professional development opportunities we provide.

Do you think there should be a mandatory question on a Scottish text in the Higher English exam?

Yes, because it is absurd to have an educational system which isn't somehow tied to the culture in which it sits. I don't think it will restrict choice, because there is a wealth of Scottish texts which are great for studying and if what a teacher is going to teach at Higher level covers two books, then you are already in trouble. I can only reflect on my own education experience where we really covered the gamut of English literature in quite a thorough way. We didn't get examined on 90 per cent of it. Your response to a book becomes more sophisticated the more responses you have to different books. So we are not talking about time that is being wasted or not contributing to an exam result.

Do grammar, spelling and punctuation really matter?

It depends on what you are doing and the stage you are at with a particular pupil. Drawing attention to grammar in a piece of creative work with youngish children is very unhelpful. What you are trying to get at is that sense of exploration, of trying things out. If you keep saying "and you spelled these words wrong", what you are doing is killing that dead. Later on, I do think that acquiring language and grammar is very important.

What are you reading at the moment?

A really extraordinary novel called The Family Mashber by Der Nister, which was written in the 1930s and refers to a Yiddish Ukrainian town towards the end of the 1800s. It is a remarkable portrait of what is a vanished civilisation. I am also known around the office as a bit of a nut for Russian literature.

Personal profile

Born: Bangkok, Thailand, 1964

Education: American School Hong Kong, Uppingham School, University of Edinburgh

Career: Options trader at a merchant bank; bookseller for Waterstone's; salesman for Penguin in Rome; hardback rep for Penguin in Scotland; interpretation officer at Fruitmarket Gallery; assistant director at Edinburgh International Book Festival; CEO of the Scottish Book Trust.

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