Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Summer Reading Experience - Reading for pleasure vs reading for academic achievement.




Bulls, they say, can get agitated and agressive as soon as they see the colour "red". Over the summer we discovered that children (well, Charlotte) can get quite agitated and even fairly aggressive as soon as they see something like this...



Or even something like this...



Increasing the levels of literacy in young children, even pre-school, is a hot topic and since Charlotte started school we've felt under huge pressure to turn something we've loved to share with her since birth into something that's going to win her gold stars and academic praise at school.

For someone contributing to and compiling a children's picture book blog, seeing well-loved picture books repackaged in this way sets off alarm bells. From tweets this morning, it appears that Francis Lincoln and Barefoot Books are about to take the plunge with repackaging and reformatting children's picture books in this way - with the aim of seeing an increase in use in classrooms, perhaps adding to and enhancing a child's learning and reading journey at home with books they're familiar with rather than easily identifiable "school books".

I see the merit in this, but in our direct experience, as soon as a child sees anything like the banner on that Chris Riddell book, or (alas) those much maligned characters from the Biff, Chip and Kipper books, they seem to switch off and disengage.

Over the summer we really struggled to maintain the momentum that had gathered in Charlotte's first year at school and her first experience of structured and scheduled reading vs reading for pleasure.

The original aim when we started reading to Charlotte was that she'd pick up our love of books from hearing us read stories to her. We hadn't factored structured learning into the equation but from her initial first faltering steps on her journey of learning to read, we knew that laying the foundations in reading for pleasure had more direct and beneficial effect than the sometimes stilted phonics and decoding methods used in class.

That's not to say that these methods should be binned but to see them filtering down into children's picture books, story books and seeing the leeching categorisation, age rating, reading level rating and pigeonholing of books feels like it's eroding the chance for children to discover the joy of reading at their own pace, in ways they prefer.

Of course, it's not a popular way of thinking - this business about letting children meander along at their own pace, when Education Ministers are all about speed, progress, efficiency and an almost "Tiger Mother" mindset that the earlier children are hit with learning exercises, phonics, decoding and testing, the better.

Over the summer, at a rough estimate, we've read less than a handful of books that are specifically structured "school" books, and each and every time one appears, there's a huge reluctance from Charlotte to engage with that book. Sometimes a single 30 page book can take a week to work through, not because of a lack of ability on Charlotte's part (her reading and decoding are spot on for her age group - if there is any merit in such a ridiculous concept as grouping children's reading ability by age).

In sharp contrast, I'd estimate we've read around 100 or so books to her and with her that are children's picture books or early chapter readers that aren't specifically designed to enhance learning or fit into any kind of reading programme and structure. "Normal" children's picture books are always extremely well received, and voraciously consumed at home. Children are not daft and they know what they like!

Obviously these programmes aren't new, and the methods of teaching children to read are tried and tested but the danger of the lines between books for pleasure and books for learning 'blurring' to this extent is that a whole generation of new readers won't see reading as anything else other than a chore or a task. Repackaging well loved children's picture books seems crazy, but if it must be done, make it optional - perhaps use stickers or a spare cover to offer parents (and teachers) the option of softening the blow a bit?

There's a good solid reason that children's books are so hugely successful and tied into so many aspects of our culture, and it's not because children enjoy books that lecture at them, they enjoy books that tell them stories, enhance their view of the world, and (for goodness sake, this above everything else!) entertain them and perhaps make them laugh!

11 comments :

  1. Great post. Head slightly frazzled at mo so can't comment sensibly, but just to add, I've double checked and am not sure about the Barefoot books being repackaging of exisiting picture books. Definitely the case with some FL ones (i have original and repackaged in my hands).

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  2. Ah OK, will edit for clarification. Should add that this post has been, as I mentioned on Twitter this morning, bubbling away all summer but the tweets this morning provided the catalyst to polish the post up and do something about it. I would love to read a post on the merits of this idea, as there are some (for instance, the use of picture books in schools to break up the usual diet of phonics or 'stilted' books). Think the visual markers are going to work in the opposite way for a lot of children though, I think if it became the norm rather than the exception we'd have to start wrapping our books in pretty covers to avoid the tantrums :)

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  3. I am not a fan of reformating a picture book as an early reader book however I do think there is some value in putting books in categories in order to help people navigate the choice available and reformating can help reach audiences that otherwise would have been missed. What I would like to see happen is people gaining in confidence about evaluating books and understanding their children to find whats suitable across the formats, ages, categories, topics etc. Luckily I am very familiar in a library environment and confident in browsing and choosing, but you would hope so considering my profession :)

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  4. Perhaps I was a bit harsh on the whole "categorisation" thing without really meaning to be. I think age ratings are the bugbear for me, because a child's reading age can be so variable in comparison to their actual age, that the age ratings can be misconstrued as being more than just guides but more like a hard and fast rule.

    It's a tough cookie though, categorisation and also the whole aspect of early readers and those first steps along the learning journey. There really aren't any "magic" solutions, and as you say, it's definitely worth shouting as long and loud as possible that parents and teachers engaging with their children and evaluating their likes and their abilities is probably the closest to an ideal solution, but not always practical given class sizes and parents constantly juggling so many aspects of their lives while still trying to be "good" parents.

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  5. I think there's two things going on here with the re-formatting (well probably more than that but two things I'm gonna talk about!)
    I think there are plenty of nutter parents amongst the book buying public who won't buy picture books much after their child turns 4, under some misguided notion that they should be moving on to 'proper' books (believe me I've heard them in bookshops enough times...) The repackaging may sell them titles that their children will enjoy- picture books by stealth! I quite like that.
    The banding and reformatting to sell to schools I also feel okay about. Schools and teachers that need the comfort blanket of a clear 'system' may be more likely to invest- and I'd rather my kids were given a rebranded book that was originally written for reading pleasure than one that was written as part of a scheme to teach them a particular phonic sound say.
    I think there's room for both.

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  6. Agree that books originally written for pleasure definitely are something I'd like to see included in reading programmes in schools more than the usual stilted phonics-driven stuff - so yep agree there's room for both.

    I still can't quite believe that parents discount picture books as not being proper enough, perhaps that's the reason why a lot of early chapter books are sneaking in illustrations to try and address this (I thought the recent Dirty Bertie early chapter readers and Angela Nicely books with those fab illustrations in were definitely a move in the right direction for kids who want a bit of both - ie fab picture books but also 'more grown up' feeling books.

    Ace comment Polly!

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  7. I found this post really interesting so thank you for that. :-)

    I think I agree with both Polly and Damyanti, in that there's a space for both things and that categorisation does, in some instances help. I know I've worked with a lot of parents who found categorisation helpful and a sort of support framework around which to base their choices. Equally, I've worked with a lot of parents who couldn't bear to go near them.

    It's a hard one, but I think that sometimes I don't mind what 'route' people take into a text as long as they actually 'take a route'. And the concept of 'picture books by stealth' is making me see a ninja-esque Dogger or a Chris Haughton animal hiding innocently behind one of these 'banded' covers - which is something I really think I love!

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  8. I think that's the killer quote - "I don't mind what 'route' people take into a text as long as they actually 'take a route'" - For all my bluster about the formulaic and pressured approach, and a slightly unfair dig at some school texts, they are at least one route into reading for children. My fear with the repackaging is that children may, for instance, have a repackaged book from a series they've previously loved which will instantly turn them off the whole series, rebadged or otherwise. There are actually some entertaining and good stories amongst the Biff, Chip and Kipper range but because those characters are so readily identified by Charlotte as "School", she instantly gets worked up as she knows that the stories are going to feel like they're testing, prodding, poking and pressuring rather than coaxing, encouraging and teasing out her reading ability.

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    1. I read this post on the way home this evening, and when I got in slightly coincidentally son (5) wanted to read to me from the re-packaged Wendel's Workshop that he'd borrowed from the library. So I asked him about it and if he thought it was a good idea they'd put 'Lets Read' on the front. He was absolutely positive about this, and without prompting also said that they could have put a colour on it, or put a number on it to show what age it was for.

      I asked him about what age they might put on the book, and why. He said that it would show what level it was for, but that he would read books which said '6 or 7 or 8 ... or even 11'. When I pointed out he was only 5, he said that it was just a guide and that if you could read as well as 'someone in year 6' then you could read the older books.

      I guess the point is that children and grownups react in different ways to structure, categorisation and being told what they are meant to do. Our son definitely sees the reading scheme levels at school as a challenge - he wants to progress through the reading scheme colours and read the harder books. He also understands that these things aren't a limitation but a guide he can follow based on his own judgement.

      I know absolutely the same things put other children (and grownups) off. That's fine as well of course - this isn't about right and wrong, but about something working.

      In all the cases it takes sensible adult input to get children reading and enthused about books - and I suspect you and everyone reading this blog knows and appreciates that. If repackaging makes it easier for children, or adults, who are less confident at making these decisions to choose something to read, then I'm all for it - with the proviso that I wouldn't want to see it at the expense of the books in the original format which are often things of beauty in their own right, and of course appeal to others who find the structure and restrictive categorisations, or context of 'learning' off putting.

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  9. Great article. I urge you, though, to not water down your statements when faced with the opinions of others. The best way to reading is through real books; literature to feed the mind and soul. Books to teach phonics and 'readers' to teach reading are often devoid of anything that helps children make connections with who they are or with their aspirations. Who would pick one off the shelf as a first choice for reading? Chances are, if you don't want to read it, children won't either. In your article you have demonstrated how powerful an enjoyment of reading is. Keep up the great work getting the message out there!

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  10. Thank you all so much for the comments on this article. It demonstrates perfectly the balance between folk who don't mind the categorisation and whose children get on OK with the structured ways of learning to read, and the folk who are working away getting children interested in reading through stories and picture books.

    I think 'didyoueverstoptothink's comment is the one that's stuck in my mind. No matter what route children (and their parents) take into literacy, the fact that you are putting in the effort and - crikey, this more than anything else - that you're interested in every aspect of your child's development and what they're into shows that there are wonderful book-loving folk out there who know that this stuff is important, and worth discussing at length, and daymmmm I love that.

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