Dressing up literacy must have a purpose

25th March 2016 at 00:00

A few weeks ago, I sat in the gym hall for parents’ evening. Taking a rare gulp of air, I found time in between the dash through appointment slots to look up. In the island of seats at the middle of the room, I saw the usual clusters of families, many of whom had brought little children. One was dressed as Buzz Lightyear; another as a pirate. Four Elsas from Frozen skidded round, chased by a couple of Annas, a Snow White, and witches galore. This was World Book Day, of course, when characters from fiction peel away from the page. And into parents’ evening.

It’s striking how World Book Day plays out so strongly in the key constituencies of the younger years, where dressing up seems easier to integrate into a day that may already involve a stronger emphasis on kinaesthetic activities, play and jolly rewards. Secondary schools seem to have a more sanguine approach to face paint and Captain America jumpsuits with six-packs drawn on them in foam. I don’t know, maybe your GCSE classes are different.

Fast-forward a few years past school and they’ll all be at it again, only this time it’ll be for Freshers’ Week, Halloween and pub crawls, and they’ll all be dressed up as Fred Flintstone and Wonderbra Warriors. An evening suit and a pair of vampire teeth always saved me from greater indignity at such times.

I asked a lot of primary teachers what they were doing for World Book Day, and the response was heartening: a huge number of them were following the catechism of make-up and dressing-up box, but they were also using it was a vehicle to drive kids towards text. Some of them had the children presenting an introduction to their character and the book – the motivations and themes behind the grease paint – to their peers. Some of them were re-enacting scenes for the room to dissect. Others were doing sponsored readathons; others were simply reading – the most controversial thing to do with a book, it seems, on World Book Day.

There were a few who sadly admitted that the day was little more than an eight-hour conga through Mr Ben’s wardrobe; or, worse still, a normal school day with everyone dressed up. There are few things sadder than seeing a Little Bo Peep or Thor getting a telling off for throwing crayons at the class guinea pig. Actually there is: the teller-off dressed as Esmeralda or Princess Jasmine. It’s hard to take someone seriously when they’re tottering around in Maleficent’s robes, carrying a staff.

Being literate is one of the high tides of our civilised, primate, tool-using culture; it is a gateway to almost every other instructed skill there is. Its lack strangles a million futures, closes a million doors, and its presence unlocks the Great Book of Life. There are few more powerful barometers and catalysts to success or underachievement than this gift: to be able to read, write and speak fluidly, fluently. And schools are many children’s greatest chance of acquiring this superpower. Designing a day where children are invited to celebrate literacy, narrative, and words overall is a hallmark of a civilised culture that prizes learning, symbols and meaning.

Playing at fairies is not. Buzz Lightyear is not a character in a book; nor is Michael Jackson or “a cowboy”. Sofia the First has only a tangential relationship with text. World Book Day shouldn’t be marked by learning less, but more. And we need to remember how, for many children, it’s the best opportunity they’ll have to read a book. Next year, I hope even more educators remember that fancy dress competitions aren’t what schools were built for.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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