Rosen reads the riot act on literacy

29th August 2014 at 01:00
Help pupils to love books, urges former children's laureate

A former children's laureate has called for greater action to promote reading for pleasure in schools as he launched a national literacy campaign in Edinburgh.

Michael Rosen (pictured, inset) told TESS that teachers suffered from a "lack of support" when it came to encouraging pupils to enjoy a good book.

Speaking before his talk earlier this week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the English author and poet admitted that he was unfamiliar with Curriculum for Excellence. However, he said he was "optimistic" about its aim for teachers to develop young people's literacy skills across all subjects and year groups.

But although the CfE approach has been praised by education experts and leading literary bodies, concerns have been raised about the need to focus more closely on reading for pleasure.

"In terms of schools, the key question is whether teachers have the time and space to concentrate on reading for pleasure," Rosen said. "There is so much effort going into systematic and synthetic phonics that reading for pleasure is losing out.

"Comprehension in schools is based on retrieval [of facts], which leaves little room for free interpretation. The only purpose of reading for pleasure is to enjoy interpreting. It's not for retrieving."

Rosen suggested that it would help if schools made better use of the country's "army of librarians".

Jamie Jauncey, a former chairman of the Society of Authors in Scotland, was among the panellists at Rosen's talk. Provocatively titled "What's the point of books?", the event marked the launch of the National Conversation, a two-year literacy campaign that aims to raise "key questions" about encouraging and improving reading across the UK.

Mr Jauncey said he shared Rosen's concerns. "I think that for a long time politicians, and educationalists as a consequence, have taken an incredibly reductive view of reading. From my own experience as a writer for children and teenagers, I know the value in allowing time to read for pleasure."

He added: "When I used to go into schools, there was a moment when I would be reading to them and I knew I'd got them, when I could see their eyes glaze over as they forgot that they were 14 and cool, and they were absolutely enjoying and learning from the story.

"The idea of teaching literature as texts to be dissected and analysed is fine if you're going to study it at university, but for most people books are written to be enjoyed."

The Scottish Book Trust praised CfE's "laudable" aims but agreed that better use of librarians would improve literacy further. "Librarians are very often the difference between a child engaging with reading and switching off because they can't find the right book," a spokesman said.

The EIS teaching union said that many schools made good use of libraries and events such as the book festival, which it sponsors. But it stressed that relevant CPD opportunities should be offered to teachers "throughout their careers", not just during initial teacher training.

CfE explicitly requires teachers to find ways to promote literacy. However a 2009 survey showing that 3.6 per cent of adults in Scotland could not read triggered a renewed focus and prompted the Scottish government to release its Literacy Action Plan (bit.lyScotLitPlan) the following year.

A government spokeswoman said that the plan, CfE and national programmes such as the Bookbug scheme were all boosting reading for pleasure to "unlock learning" across the curriculum.

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