Sitting comfortably?

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Sue Palmer argues that story-time sessions are vital to today's children

It's 1959: Mr Kinsey has just told us to put away our things - there's time for an instalment of the story before home time. I'm cramming books into my desk like there's no tomorrow - yesterday, Toad got sent to prison, and I desperately want to know what happens next. It's a great way to end the day, listening to a story with the rest of the class. Besides, Mr Kinsey does the voices...

Leap forward to 1979: my Year 6s are rushing to join me in the book corner, agog for the latest episode of Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners. I now know the educational arguments for "story-time": opportunities for personal, social and health education, endless fodder for class discussion, and a different perspective on World War II, the term's project. And it's turning several previously reluctant readers on to books - copies of The Machine Gunners have already begun circulating in class. Besides, it's fun and I love doing the voices...

Fast forward to 1999: we're in the early stages of the National Literacy Strategy and I'm running a training session on key stage 2 literacy. "Do you still manage to read aloud to the children?" I ask. The teachers look glum, shake their heads. "That went out when the national curriculum came in," someone sighs. "There just aren't enough hours in the day - and the literacy hour will make it worse."

It's been a terrible decade for primary teachers, and it isn't for someone who's now out of the classroom to question the pressures of fitting 10 subjects into a school week and introducing two national strategies. Something simple and enjoyable, like reading aloud, would easily look unimportant in the face of all those objectives and directives. But this year, the dust has begun to settle, and the Government's attention is, mercifully, focused elsewhere. There's time to remember what teaching is all about. So I'm praying that teachers get a chance to bring back reading aloud. Not just because of the remembered pleasures of one who has read and been read to, but for a host of new reasons which, in a multimedia age, become more pressing every day.

First, there's listening. Today's children do not learn to do this easily. They're reared on a whirlwind of quick-fire visual effects, which teachers reap in a legacy of poor concentration and behavioural problems. There's much to be done in the field of listening skills development, but regular story-times should be an important element, throughout nursery and primary school. Opportunities to tune children's ears to language through access to stories, with no screen, no rewind button - just their own imaginations set free by an author's words.

Next, there's the increasing need to "sell" reading. Teachers know that every year it gets harder to turn children into readers. They can't be bothered to do it. Why should they, when they can get all their entertainment and information from a screen? So, every year, fewer children discover the pleasures of literacy: that opportunity to lock minds with another human being; find insights into the thoughts and experiences of others; to delight in a perfect phrase or a dazzling word. At the very least, hearing good books read aloud gives children access to these pleasures through their ears. If we're lucky, some of them, like those Year 6s of 20 years ago, might be lured to try it for themselves.

Finally, there are huge implications for writing. Learning to write means learning a whole new way of using language, moving from the familiar patterns of spoken language to the more complex patterns of the written form. Speech is interactive - batting words and phrases back and forth - and produced within a shared context, so a great deal of meaning goes by on the nod. TV language is spoken language. Writing, on the other hand, must be explicit, complex, crafted - it requires a wide vocabulary and a greatly enlarged repertoire of sentence constructions.

Children who watch TV rather than reading can become trapped in the restricted, repetitive patterns of simple spoken language, and when they write, they just produce "speech written down". Even if we can't turn these children into readers (and we must never stop trying), we can help them improve their writing skills through listening. Fifteen minutes listening to a story - or a poem, or good non-fiction - at the end of the day means 15 minutes in which they're immersed in the patterns, rhythms and cadences of written language.

2001: it's time to rediscover that reading aloud is an enjoyable, easy, effective way of enhancing literacy skills - as visual media proliferate, it may even be an essential one. Please find time to bring it back to your classroom. You don't have to do the voices if you don't want to.

Sue Palmer is a freelance writer and in-service training provider.

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