Tuesday, 3 September 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!