Sunday 25 November 2018

How to do some things that go towards helping children 'own' literacy

I tend to frame my talks about literacy, reading for pleasure, poetry and the like around the idea of 'how to help children think and know that literacy belongs to them'. One starting point for me is thinking about my own childhood and what it was that my parents, my brother and school did to enable me to think that I could write anything, anytime, that I could change and adapt anything anytime. That I could play about with voices, registers, moods, tones, plots, forms and even if I wasn't very good at this or that kind of writing, I still felt that was entitled to do it. 

Much of it came from my parents and brother who read to me, gave me books, told stories, admired others who could tell stories. They were also writers and editors and broadcasters themselves. They played records and 'tapes' (remember them?) of people who performed poems, stories, anecdotes and informal stories. They encouraged me to give my own writing a go, whether that was stories, poems, 'sketches', plays and formal writing for things like Geography and History. They were also people who could speak several languages, some well - some just only a bit, so I heard a lot of French and German spoken, but also quite a lot of Yiddish, Latin and even bits of Russian. And language itself was often talked about as something that was interesting, or odd, or amazing. I could go on. And on. The point is that I was very lucky - absurdly lucky - to get all this. And there was a tone to it all that I treasure: the language and literature of the 'greats' - Shakespeare, Chaucer etc was not held in greater esteem than the carefully crafted jokes and performance of someone like Peter Ustinov or a friend of the family, Solly Kaye, who could tell Jewish jokes to roomful of people at a party. Meanwhile, my brother who was a great mimic could 'do voices' in ways that meant, in effect, he was 'snipping' or 'grabbing' the variations and types around us, bring them into the home and playing with them - and then mingling them with something like the Molesworth books which did the same in writing with the types from smalltime Public School.
(I've written about this in my autobiography 'So They Call You Pisher!' (Verso Books) which I can now see (having written it!) was a way of uncovering how we mix the Education we get in school and college with the 'education' of a very different kind we get at home and with our friends.)

All this added up to a sense of entitlement and ownership around language and literature, around 'orality' and literacy. In retrospect, I can see that a good deal of my work in schools, colleges or with my writing has been devoted to passing on as much of this as I can manage whether that's through performances in schools, libraries and theatres, through radio, through what I write and how I write it, or through workshops with children or teaching in universities. It is all in its own way about the idea that language belongs to all of us. It isn't owned by a small elite group no matter how entitled they might appear to be. 

I think that the work we do around Reading for Pleasure are crucial in this matter. Reading for Pleasure - where children (or any of us) browse, choose and read, browse, choose and read is a crucial plank in the process of owning literacy. Here are three links that can help with this:

But I also ask questions about what has happened to the way successive governments have asked children about reading - comprehension, in other words.

I think that the obsession with right and wrong answers (so that children and teachers can be assessed) is a process that results in taking away from children and school students a sense that literacy belongs to them. At the core of this is the insistence that 'understanding' of texts can only be assessed by asking the kinds of questions about 'retrieval', 'inference', 'chronology' and 'presentation' etc at the core of SATs in Primary Schools. These deny the processes of 'interpretation' that all of us do when we get the chance to look at books in the ways that are created when we really do 'read for pleasure'. 

Interpretation involves us letting the free flow of emotions in reaction to a text actually matter, it involves us bringing our own personal experience and memory into understanding what's going on; it involves bringing in our 'repertoire' of texts that we have read, seen and heard, it involves us feeling free to ask questions of a text as and when they crop up, it involves us having a go at answering these questions, and it can involve investigating a text to find connections between things, and find patterns of sound and meaning. 

This can be structured as a set of questions which we can put to children and school students in ways that encourage them to talk, investigate, speculate and share. To be clear - I am  not saying that this is the be-all and end-all of all criticism, or that it is a sufficient way to produce great answers at e.g. GCSE or A-Level or Degree Level investigation of texts. I am saying that these questions are a good place to start with e.g. primary school children, with KS3 school students, or indeed with anyone by way of entry into texts of many kinds. What's more, in my experience of working this way, many of the themes or ideas that we feel that we have to teach about texts are raised by this investigatory approach, so they provide a basis or a platform for, say, work on 'context' or 'language'. 

The set of questions are:

1. Affect: Is there any part of this story, poem, play ('text') that you were moved by, found funny, horrific, weird, scary, spooky...? Why? How? 
2. Experience: Is there any part of the text that reminds you of anything that has ever happened to you or anyone you know? Why? How?
3. Intertext: Is there any part of the text that reminds you of any other text you have ever come across? Why? How?
4. Interrogating: What questions would you like to ask of anyone in the text? Or of the author or imagined author? Having collected these questions together, can you answer any of them? If you can't, how can you go about finding them out?
5. In every text, particularly in literature, there are 'secret strings' that run through it. These are the linked sounds, themes, motifs and images of a text. Can you be 'detectives' and find any of these? Remember any link you find will be a link if you can say why and how? 

How you frame, adapt or rewrite these questions is up to you. How you organise your class to do this is up to you. You may find that one way to do it, is to treat the first three questions as ideal for discussion in pairs. The fourth question can begin with pairs then move to whole class, a collection of all the questions, and then seeing who can answer any of them, taking the questions one by one. You might want to set up hot-seating as a way of answering some of the questions in which the class interview e.g. the author or  one of the protagonists about motives, purpose, meaning etc. A great way to do number 5 is to have a copy of the piece in front of a group of children or school students and they draw the strings on the piece itself, with the explanations alongside. 

I am not claiming that this method is a totally sufficient way to handle all texts. What I will claim is that it acknowledges that people who read - no matter what their age is - respond to texts and understand them with who they are. This set of questions lets that person in, so that interaction can begin. In my experience this encourages an engagement with these processes of 'comprehension' (if that's what it is!) and encourages what I've been talking about in relation to 'ownership' of literacy. 

I have written about these matters at greater length in three self-published booklets:

"Poems and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools"
"Why Write? Why Read?"
"Writing for Pleasure"

I wrote these originally for my students on the MA course I teach on. These students are mostly classroom teachers and librarians. The MA is 'MA in Children's Literature' at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

(You can find the booklets on my website:

in a book published by Walker Books:

"What is Poetry?"

(Also on my website or available through bookshops.) 

By the way one of the main reasons why I have done my poem and story performances on YouTube is also about 'owning' literacy. That is, I thought that what children, parents and teachers could do is a) look at the videos for their own enjoyment; b) find the written versions of the poems and stories that I am performing c) make up performance of their own d) write poems and stories of their own. 

This is the 'virtuous' circle of listening, talking, reading and writing: the more we do of it, the better we get at it. I believe very strongly that poetry, song and performance of all kinds are a great 'bridge' between speech and writing. They provide reasons and motives for why we might want to write and read. 

I have started to talk about these things on my YouTube Channel: 'Michael Rosen for Teachers':