Trainee teachers have been saturated in children's literature by school and public librarians. Now their enthusiasm is reaching pupils. Elaine Williams reports
No offence to the memory of children's author Robert Westall, but Tessia Langley, aged 10, isn't impressed with his novel Ghost Abbey. It just dribbles on, she says, and the language is "a bit strong", and anyway Robert Westall was a grouch because she looked him up on the internet and that's what his daughter said about him.
The Book Terminators reading group is meeting at Victoria junior school in Workington, Cumbria, and Tessia is not inclined to pull her punches. Why, asks trainee teacher and book group guide Jean Mulqueeney, did she choose an author she didn't like?
Well, Tessia had read Kingdom by the Sea and thought she would have a go at another Robert Westall, but Ghost Abbey was definitely not her cup of tea.
Nevertheless Tessia is more than ready to advise Scott Holliday, also 10, that he should persist with Cornelia Funke. Scott had found the novel Dragon Rider a bit slow, but Tessia points out that Funke's The Thief Lord was also "a bit hard to get into", but that once you were into it, it was brilliant. Scott decides that, although Dragon Rider isn't for him, he might pass it on to a pal on the strength of Tessia's recommendation.
The Book Terminators, its enthusiastic members explain, gives them a chance to talk about books without pressure. They aren't being marked or judged, as they are in class. They can just say and read what they want, for pure pleasure.
For Jean Mulqueeney and her fellow trainee, Jenny McIntyre, who run the book club while on placement, the club also provided a focus for exploring the latest children's literature.
"There's a vast number of books out there," says Ms Mulqueeney, 42, a former social worker now qualifying through the school-centred teacher training programme (Scitt) Cumbria Primary Teacher Training. "The range has changed so much in recent years. You can relate to children's reading so much better if you know the sort of thing they like. Also, the children then see us as readers like them, people they can share books with, somebody human."
To increase student teachers' knowledge and enjoyment of children's books so that they will then spend their careers passing on their enthusiasm, all trainees who train with the Scitt receive regular boxes of books from Cumbria schools library service, which they are required to read and use to run reading groups with pupils. This partnership between the library service and schools is one aspect of the North West's response to Literature Matters, a national programme funded jointly by the Arts Council, the Department for Education and Skills and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.
A result of an Arts Council report on children's literature in 2003, Literature Matters builds```` links between teacher trainers and library services to boost reading in schools by enthusing trainee teachers about children's literature and developing their knowledge of it.
Tony Martin, an English tutor and head of the Cumbria primary Scitt, said research had long shown that the best and most effective teachers of literacy were those who were passionate about children's books. It is also proven that children who read widely for pleasure become the best writers.
"When we were asked to be part of Literature Matters, I felt that regularly updated book boxes provided by the library service would be the best way forward. This would ensure that trainees left the course having read as widely as possible and with an enthusiasm for literature that they could share."
By September next year each of the nine Literature Matters regions will have received pound;20,000 in funding spread over two years; 75 per cent of teacher trainers are expected to have been involved in the scheme.
The approach varies between regions. In the North West, for example, Kate Shepherdson, now an NQT in English at Canon Slade secondary in Bolton, spent the last two weeks of her University of Manchester PGCE course in public libraries in deprived areas of the city. Her course had also included training from school library services in Bolton and Bury. Her most memorable experience was visiting schools on Manchester libraries' Voyager, a bus transformed into a mobile library full of "fantastic new books", she says.
"The bus was just a treasure trove," says Ms Shepherdson. "The children loved it and I loved it. Before that I had no idea what libraries can offer schools. In Bolton, the wealth of material we gain from our school library service is unbelievable and I now feel I can make full use of it."
Ms Shepherdson now runs an English Lit club with Year 9 pupils. She feels her work experience with libraries, and the chance to broaden her knowledge of books, has given her added confidence in the classroom.
"I think my knowledge of children's literature was stuck in the Roald Dahl days," she says, "but I now feel more knowledgeable and confident to recommend books to teenagers."