Sunday 25 December 2011

Reading in schools

I’ve sometimes said that reading books in schools is a subversive activity. This seems counter-intuitive. Schools are surely places which foster the idea that the written text is one of the best means of carrying ideas and knowledge. On close examination, it’s possible to see that a) one kind of written text dominates the scene and b) one kind of reading dominates. That’s to say, the texts are predominantly instructive, didactic full of closed-ended – or at best – Socratic questions which tie the learner to answering exactly as the apparent author of the texts (text-book author, teacher, examiner ?) demands. So, right from the earliest years, children are confronted with texts that are, say, supposedly teaching the child how to read (synthetic phonics and reading schemes), moving on remarkably soon to ‘comprehension’ texts and worksheets, in which children are asked factual questions about supposed facts in the text they have just read, moving on to many variations of this, right the way to GCSE.
Of course, the purpose and function of reading in society is much more than this. In one sense, we can say that the world’s wisdom has up until fairly recently been captured in books. Of course, there are other sources for ideas – the electronic media in all their complexity, and that traditional means – talk and, more importantly, we shouldn’t think of one part of the inter-mediate world as excluding another. Books aren’t in contradiction with the internet, say. However, if we exclude the reading of whole books from the reading diet of someone – or whole groups of people – a serious deprivation is taking place.
At one level, this deprivation is about specifity and the other about heterodoxy. That’s to say, on account of the economics of book-publishing over many centuries, it is nearly always true to say that whatever a person’s specific needs and curiosities, it’s possible to find a book that fits it. What’s more, on account of that publishing history, the world of books contains thousands of texts which defy the dominant ideas of the day.
At another level, it’s possible to say that there is something significant about browsing. What is browsing? It’s the scanning of texts in order to find out what you want. Browsing involves comparing, contrasting, selecting – and most importantly – the setting up of informal and formal ‘sets’. Children given regular opportunities to browse and sort piles of books, magazine, comics and the like will do these things. And what are they? The very processes that thousands of tedious worksheets try to ‘teach’: compare, contrast, select and group. It could be argued that most of education is based around these practices. I’ve seen six year olds sorting their comics or books over and over again, doing just this. It’s a crucial textual practice which schools try to teach but which takes place in certain kinds of homes (ie the ones with many books) every day.
We also know that when I say ‘certain homes’, the implication is that I mean ‘middle class’ or ‘educated’ or ‘professional’. True, mostly, but not entirely so. There are some specific instances where homes where the parent or parents have reason to provide many books, magazines and comics for their children or for themselves or both – politics being one of them. My father came from a working-class ‘vertical’ family home with mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles (and no father) present. Two or three of them were highly politicised, filling the house with pamphlets, newspapers, books (and talk about those books) and took full advantage of the local library in a systematic, regular way. A vast longitudinal study from the University of Nevada, involving tens of thousands of children across 27 countries has discovered the same thing. That’s to say, independent of class/income and education, the presence of many books (eg 500) in a home has an add-on effect of 3 years more take-up of schooling by the child(ren) from such a home.
This sort of thing has been known informally and formally by teachers for decades. In the days when every big school in a working-class area would have at least one child whose parent or parents were active in, say, trade unions, the Labour Party or other left parties, teachers knew that that child was being exposed to something significant in the way of literacy, language and thought. Politicians have known it and have been told it many times over – some of them by me! But, significantly, they do nothing about it.
Why is that? Because they work to a different model of literacy, knowledge and education. For them, it must be instructional, instrumental (that’s to say there must be evidence that what’s being taught must ‘do’ something), and functional (that’s to say the thing that it’s ‘doing’ must be seen to have a ‘use’ ). Reading for pleasure in this scheme of things is an extra, a suitable leisure activity, or even something too complicated for the lower orders – even though the evidence I’m citing shows precisely the opposite. If you like it’s more instructional, more instrumental, more functional – and a lot more besides – than the stuff that is dished up in the name of literacy, knowledge and education: the worksheets, reading schemes, exercises, text books and the like that dominate education.
When I say – ‘and a lot more besides’ – what do I mean? This is where we confront the issue of ‘literature’ which I’ll broadly define as ‘figurative writing’ – that’s to say kinds of writing in which the main beings/creatures/humans in the piece along with many of the objects and aspects of ‘nature’ are there in unreal, metaphorical, allegorical, representational ways. They are ‘acting out’ scenes and ideas. These processes, which we find in poems, stories, plays, films and the like, combine ideas with feelings – their own and the readers’/viewers’/listeners’. And these ideas and feelings appear to be attached to the beings in the literature as they ‘act out’ the events in their existence.
The business of combining ideas and feelings is crucial. This is how we are affected by what happens. We say we are ‘touched’ even as we evaluate the rightness/wrongness, fairness/unfairness etc of how the beings are behaving. What’s really interesting from an educational point of view is that at any given moment (I’ll come back to that moment), that evaluating act can suddenly dominate and the audience (let’s say a class of young people) will want to discuss values and ethics of what’s going on. This is crucial. One of the fundamental tenets underlying education is that it will enable children to generalise about themselves, events and the world in order to spot patterns or even to give names to phenomena so that they can be seen as not random one-off events. So we might imagine that education will enable young people to think and talk about, let’s say, injustice, envy, power, anger and the like. Open-ended engagement with literature is one of the ways in which we can all get handles on these difficult and important ideas. In fact, it’s the easiest, most accessible way in which we can do it. Anyone who has sat with young children reading and talking will find that inevitably, one arrives at these moments where the ideas about the feelings (but also with the feelings) become important.
So, drawing all these thoughts together, I come to the conclusion that schools should be places that should strain every part of themselves to foster reading for pleasure: in class, in break-times, after school and in the children’s/students’ homes. This involves some very practical work: asking the parents to set up some kind of reading committee which has the job of getting books into the hands of children of all backgrounds; creating a relationship with local libraries that goes beyond the tokenistic nod eg arranging to issue tickets to reception and year 1 children; creating regular ‘book events’ with authors,talks, films, music; making the connection between all school activities and books that relate to them eg in relation to trips, sports, projects, changes in the school; involving all school-workers and staff in this book project – eg caretakers, dinner and cleaning staff particularly as many of them will be parents or ex-parents of pupils; re-thinking ‘literacy’ as ‘many literacies’ ie involving all languages, different means of ‘delivery’ eg newspapers, phone apps, computer screens, graphic design and therefore on the back of that, engaging practitioners, especially parents, in all those fields to come into schools in order to share with the children/students what they’re doing.; thinking of everything that children write as potential scripts for publishing or performing with outlets such as school websites, informal magazines, classroom ‘sketches’, plays, cabarets, parent-child book-making etc etc central to literacy for all.
Put all that together and we have a theory and practice of universal literacy in schools. This is an urgent part of our demands for emancipation and liberation for all.