Cut the pressure and let children enjoy reading
If you’re reading this, perhaps you take the very fact that you can interpret written language for granted. Most of us are taught to read at school and gain a reasonable competence by early childhood.
But thousands of children each year leave primary school with little more than basic literacy skills. Dr Cathy Taylor, principal at the Sirius Academy in Hull, spoke out last week after finding almost one in ten pupils joining her school at 11 had a reading age of five.
Department of Education figures show that across England, 84% of pupils leaving primary school have a reading age of 11 or above. But what about the other 16%? Why aren’t these children able to read?
To level the blame at teachers seems misguided: next month, the National Union of Teachers is likely to warn their annual conference that a new reading test for six-year-olds is ‘unnecessary and inappropriate’. The union is due to discuss a motion which contains an amendment calling for a campaign against the test, including a ballot for a boycott if the results are used in league tables.
The test was introduced at the end of last year by ministers who were concerned about children with poor reading skills. But the NUT’s problem with the test centres around the fact that it is based on phonics, a system which focuses on sounds rather than recognising whole words.
As someone who has loved reading since a young age, this makes me hugely sad. Why aren’t children allowed to pick a book and just read? There are plenty of satisfactory ways of assessing a child’s progress through increasingly more difficult books that does not involve sounding out, in some cases, made up words.
A teacher friend, who works in a primary school in Birmingham, said she would like more time to let children explore books. ‘There’s too much focus on targeted reading – reading to a certain level – than letting children have an hour every so often to just read,’ she lamented.
Testing a child’s reading seems to have become more important than encouraging their enjoyment of it.
Perhaps we can pass the blame to councils, who, faced with squeezed budgets and difficult decisions, face closing hundreds of the nation’s 4,000 public libraries. When I was a child, my local library ran a scheme called Book Track. A quick web search confirms it’s still going strong, and no wonder: children who read 100 books were rewarded with a series of badges, culminating in a gold badge and, usually, a picture in the local paper. The premise was simple – but you had to tell a librarian about the books you’d read, ensuring you read them properly and that you’d taken in the story.
It was brilliant. It’s a fact universally acknowledged that children love collecting things. But with money looking increasingly tight, Book Track’s days could be numbered.
Perhaps it’s people who criticise the lack of ‘suitable’ texts on school syllabuses. Over the last decade there have been a number of instances where various individuals have bemoaned the fact that Harry Potter books have become some of the bestselling of a generation. ‘They’re not classics!’ people cry. So what? I’d much rather children read and enjoyed Harry Potter than read and hated a classic. That sort of thing can put children off for life.
You only have to look at the success of The Hunger Games film which took £4.9 million in Britain on its first weekend. Its popularity stems from the trilogy of books of the same name – books which millions of people have read and enjoyed. This is the sort of enthusiasm for books we should be encouraging in children, not the kind that involves sounding out phonics.
Ultimately, that real desire to read needs to be instilled in our children – the kind of desire that makes you stay up at night with a torch under your duvet, ferociously turning pages.
From reading Danny the Champion of the World in my pyjamas on the sofa with my mum, aged eight, to swallowing every word of The Bell Jar during angst-ridden teenage years, to ploughing my way through Jane Eyre in the middle of the night as a university student desperate to finish the set text for that week, I love books. I think everyone else should be given the opportunity to love them too.Tagged in: books, education, literature, phonics, primary school, Reading, reading age, school
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