Right old dump of tedious texts

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
The wisdom of Henry Walpole

in these post-literacy-hour times, hearing children read has become unfashionable - particularly in primary schools, where the teaching assistant does it while the teacher fills in grids and analyses pupil-performance stats. Many children get their daily reading through "extracts", usually projected upside-down on an overhead projector by a slightly hung-over teacher.

Some one-to-one reading does still go on, but as this is with slower pupils it is often from reading-scheme books. No sight is more guaranteed to cause despair to teachers than a child shuffling towards them bearing a dog-eared copy of Land of the Dinosaurs and plonking it down with a sigh.

Like most reading books, it sounds like an exciting tale, but that Year 4 reader is unlikely to thrill to a tale in which the high point is that some children see a dinosaur and run away. The child in question has probably seen Jurassic Park, and so expects at least one character to have their head removed.

Teachers know these books by heart. My wife wonders why in my sleep I can be heard to moan, "And the magic key began to glow." These texts have a hypnotic simplicity, and if I ever take up meditation my mantra will be:

"Floppy falls in the river; Floppy gets wet."

My favourite ever reading-scheme book was The Biggest Dump in the World.

Only a puerile person would find humour in that title, although I admit that the front cover was the screensaver on my school laptop for some years.

The difficulty with these texts comes from trying to discuss their content with 10-year-olds, whose main interests are mobile phones, ninja killers and dolls in outfits that most prostitutes would regard as "a bit tarty", so the adventures of some children who find a wallet and give it back to its owner just doesn't "do it" for them.

Further down the school, children can still get a lot of pleasure from these tales, though recently their reading skills have been supplemented by a new device to help adults doubt their sanity: "action phonics". When I pronounce "L", I simply say "luh" and see no need to accompany this with a frenzied licking action. Schools seem to have taken up these ideas with great glee: wobbling like a jelly for "J" or sticking up two fingers for "F". I'm sure these activities have a very positive effect on learning, but it does mean that a reading lesson in reception class resembles a group of "shakers" having a religious experience, the poor teacher cowering in the corner covered in dribble as her class "T" to their hearts' content.

I hope my son's teacher will be cheered up when she opens his "sound book"

tomorrow and sees the picture of General Pinochet I've stuck next to "pear"

and "pen" on the "P" page.

More from Henry in a fortnight

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