Nursing a poetic grievance

1st January 2010 at 00:00

Parents, it seems, have stopped reading nursery rhymes to their children because the rhymes are perceived as "not educational".

In an age when we have medicalised everyday life to the extent that we are all cod medical practitioners, experts in everything from diet to detox, it's not surprising we have educationalised our children's early language experience. Yes, I know that's not a word yet, but shouldn't it be?

Humpty Dumpy may be a good egg and Little Jack Horner a good boy but, if they don't do our children any good, we don't need them. The literary critic Terry Eagleton once said that a lot of hard work had gone into making reading books unpleasant enough to qualify as a discipline at university and, it seems, in a similar fashion, we're working hard to take the fun out of early language-skills experience to make it count towards future academic success.

If Little Miss Muffet can't help literacy skills, then she might as well stay marooned on her tuffet.

We are understandably desperate to improve reading and writing. Schools, colleges and employers are faced with a growing problem of poor language skills. Here in Dundee, the latest figures on poor literacy rates and truancy rates (which are irrevocably linked) make grim reading. In Dundee? The home of a publishing empire, and where the phenomenon that is DC Thomson's stable of comics like The Dandy and The Beano inspired and entertained generations of young readers? Where the iconic figures of Desperate Dan and Beryl the Peril proudly bestride our city centre?

Comics, however, have fallen out of favour, too: like the nursery rhyme, they were attacked because they seemed to transgress political correctness, or to offer dubious role models and dodgy morals.

As for language, well, "Pow!" and "screech" and "Tee hee hee" may not have been too challenging. But, as sales figures of these comics have fallen from their wondrous peak, would it be too fanciful to suggest that so too have literacy levels in the city?

It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between the demise of the comic and number of children who, denied the fun of engagement with these narratives, became part of the statistics.

Fanciful maybe. But the argument for the nursery rhyme is stronger: it seems three-year-olds who know their nursery rhymes do better at reading and spelling when they go to school.

No one is sure why this is so. But surely it's because nursery rhymes belong to an oral tradition, and form a shared experience where the language and the narrative are less important than the rhythm and the rhyme, the familiarity, the cuddles and the quiet moments between child and adult. They're concerned with an intimacy and reciprocity which form the building blocks for language skills.

As a fun exercise, I used to ask my writing students to form groups, and rewrite a nursery rhyme in the form of a news report. Latterly, the fun stopped because nobody knew any nursery rhymes.

There's a fat book on the shelf behind me as I write - The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. It's a brilliant study and a great excuse for adults to immerse themselves in old favourites. I recommend it. It's an education.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer in creative media.

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