Narrative and literacy

21st January 2000 at 00:00
TEACHING THROUGH TEXTS. Edited by Holly Anderson and Morag Styles. Routledge pound;14.99. TALES, TELLERS AND TEXTS. Edited by Gabrielle Cliff Hodges, Mary Jane Drummond and Morag Styles. Cassell pound;15.99. WHERE TEXTS AND CHILDREN MEET. Edited by Eve Bearne and Victor Watson. Routledge pound;16.99.

These important books are based on the work of Morag Styles and colleagues at Homerton College, Cambridge. Each has at its heart a strongly argued belief in the power of narrative and texts in developing literacy.

The definition of text is wide, encompassing the moving image, environmental print and spoken narrative. Literacy is defined as a set of culturally-developed practices, and the study of popular culture and the importance of visual literacy are fully acknowledged. The impact of new technologies and the availability of an increasing range of texts are also explored as different ways of making narrative connections.

Teaching through Texts begins by setting out its reservations to recent Government initiatives on literacy, and the mechanistic approach to teaching and learning inherent in them. However, the book recognises that at the heart of the literacy hour is a wide range of texts, fiction and non-fiction. It provides support, encouragement, inspiration and new ideas to teachers to help them tackle these both in and out of the literacy hour. The chapters describe classrooms where teachers, children and texts are working together to make meaning. Their work is imaginative and exciting, and goes beyond any functional view of literacy.

The opening chapter by Vivienne Smith is typical. It describes how to use poetry with very young children, and affirms the centrality of poetry in the early years, quoting Margaret Meek: "Poetry is never better understood than in childhood, where it is felt in the blood and along the bone." There are chapters on reading the Beano, using drama to explore picture books, reading film, using environmental print for language study, considering the range of non-fiction texts and more.

Tales, Tellers and Texts is equally inspirational, although broader in scope. It arose from a project to mark the National Year of Reading last year and is divided into four sections. The first focuses on oral narratives and starts with an exploration of the links between oral and written story-telling. The second on historical narratives begins with Fiona ollins describing how local history can be crafted into stories. Section three looks at visual narratives and includes articles by Jane Doonan and Frances Sword, education officer at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Section four considers literary narratives ranging from Shakespeare through to 19th-century prose writer George MacDonald and Michael Rosen writing about his own poetry. Eve Bearne ends by looking at the newest narratives made possible by new technologies. The emphasis is on critical engagement with narratives and understanding how they work, as well as the deep pleasure to be gained from them.

Where Texts and Children Meet is based on the papers of the biennial children's literature conference held at Homerton College in September 1997. This book is not about how to use texts with children, but is a discussion of the range and quality of what children are reading and watching. It starts with an historical perspective - Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Grimm brothers - and considers their relevance.

A cross-cultural perspective explores the interactions that occur when children make their own oral and written texts. There is a fascinating chapter by Elizabeth Grugeon about girls' playground language and lore, and the section on pictorial texts includes a chapter by Jane Doonan in which she looks at two versions of the biblical story of Noah and highlights the importance of adult mediators in helping young readers get the most out of what they see and read.

The final section examines the relationship between reality and fantasy, and discusses what narratives children should be offered and the effect they have on children's imaginations and behaviour.

Jenny Daniels's chapter "Harming young minds - moral dilemmas and cultural concerns" gets to the heart of what these three books have in common - namely an overwhelming belief in the transforming power of texts which is summed up by the quote from Bruner with which Daniels ends her chapter:

"Literature subjunctivises, makes strange, renders the obvious less so, the unknowable less so as well, matters of value more open to reason and intuition. Literature in this spirit is an instrument of freedom, lightness and imagination, and yes, reason. It is our only hope against the long gray night."

Angel Scott is a lecturer in English Education at Hatfield College, Durham

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