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September 27, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people

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Let’s get every child reading widely and well

Another year, another literacy drive. The Daily Telegraph article rather contradicts its message of ‘widely and well’ by giving a list of 50 books that all children should have read by the time they are 16. An inevitably bizarre list offers little to teenagers except The Hunger Games. What fuels these periodic drives to improve literacy in the UK is the need to be seen to be doing something. The more visible the better, and if you can hitch yourself to some celebrity wattage even better.

There have already been two National Years of Reading (1998 & 2008); there is the annual World Book Day, the Read On Get On campaign, and at least a dozen other national and local schemes. It is a cause that no one can argue with. Literacy is going to make a difference in someone’s life, a love of reading does make a difference, and yet there is something that makes my skin crawl when politicians leap on this particular bandwagon – isn’t it their job to put in place the institutions that enable a culture of literacy to thrive in the first place?

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Between the two NYOR there was BiblioBraz in Moscow. First Ladies Cherie Blair, Lyudmila Putin, and Laura Bush all attended to showcase their support. The result was world-famous UK children’s authors reading to a room packed with bodyguards, PAs, hangers on, and a couple of rows of children.

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Russia has produced a great body of literature, and enjoyed a high literacy rate. In fact at the time of BiblioBraz (2005) the government was trying to persuade fewer young people to go to university (it used to be 80% of young people went to university).

And yet, that high literacy rate and all those university graduates didn’t always give the expected results.

‘Students were notorious for their lack of interest in how to solve intellectual problems – they only cared what the answer was’
Just before the present UK literacy drive we had another headline. The Observer:
‘Fathers not reading enough to their children, says Book Trust
’ ‘Alarming’ new research says 50% more mothers read to children than fathers, and one in five students leaves primary school with poor reading skills.

At least they put quote marks around ‘alarming’. I’m all for reading more with your kids, but it doesn’t really help to throw around statistics that on closer examination show something else. The headline figures only apply to children below the age of one. After that the figures, though still unbalanced, are hardly headline worthy. At age three it’s71% 62% for mothers and fathers respectively. At five years 75% 65%, still a significant gap but enough to point the finger? Digging a little deeper we find that the actually question fathers were asked was ‘Do you take the lead in reading to your children?’ Not, Do you read with your children.

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Lift your head from the relentless succession of crises, run along the timeline, and those children who enjoyed the first National Year of Reading are now adults. Whisper it. One in six people struggles to read.

A crisis? Or a result of a culture that perpetuates inequality? Finland has a more equal society by most estimates (though by no means a utopia), and regularly tops the world charts for literacy. Is it that the Finnish language is so much easier, that the teachers get so much more training, the long dark nights, or a culture that enforces and promotes equality? Discuss.

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The successive governments who support one drive or another have also cut adult education; have reduced prison education to 4-week courses. I had an interest in children’s reading and education even before becoming a parent but it’s adult education that pricks my skin. I left school with one O level in English (grade C). I recently went through my old school books and was struck by how appalling my writing was at secondary school. Essay after essay riddled with spelling mistakes, and yet there were no comments by teachers. The thing about being an adult learner is you remember your learning. You remember your tutor at Poly asking why you couldn’t use commas, why you persisted in misspelling ‘challenge’. You remember reading and rereading novels, copying out paragraph after paragraph to drive in the punctuation habits and rules into your thick head. You remember being content reading a tabloid, and it being sneered at by both students and tutors. And you remember the first time you stumbled across a book that articulated your experience of education, and you remember the first time, the very first time, you nailed your thoughts to the page and they stuck. And then what went before no longer mattered.

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A matter of choice

September 6, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, prison, Reading, Uncategorized

Now the ban on sending books to prisoners is over, the chatter is about which books to send. Books have always been an important part of prison life. In this Pathe News clip of The Cell of the Future (1959) a selection of books can be glimpsed. It’s a mixture of thrillers, historical novels, and comedy. The only name that sticks out is Edith Pargeter (Holiday with violence) who, as Ellis Peters, wrote the Brother Cadfael series.
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A more contemporary cell would probably have Martina Cole, James Patterson, a graphic novel, and something like Sharpe with a bit of true crime and self-help thrown in. It would also be more cramped and there would be a bag of breakfast cereal next to the kettle.

At an event in HMP Grendon a couple of years ago I was asked to bring along a book I’d enjoyed, to give to prisoners. I chose Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog. It had really cast a spell over me when I read it and it has a wide range of characters to empathise with. I handed out a couple of copies to prisoners and thought no more about it. Two years later I’m back at Grendon with Erwin James who talked about how his reading developed and changed during his time in prison. When he was first there he read westerns such as the Edge series (I loved these as a teenager) but it was book called Prisoners of Honour that someone gave him that struck a chord. After the talk I’m standing there giving out dictionaries for those who have completed the Six Book Challenge when a voice says, “You know that book you said we should read?”
I have no idea what the man standing in front of me is talking about. I’m frozen in the act of handing him a dictionary.
‘Already got one.’
He’s waiting for me to pick up the conversation. The men queuing behind wait politely, no fuss. Time stops. I know the staff needs us out in a few minutes and lots of people still want to chat with Erwin
Did I recommend a particular book in the talk with Erwin before? I can never remember what I say my favourite book is: Rumblefish, Seventh Heaven, Winter’s Bone, Game of Thrones?
I must have been still looking blank when he launched into why my recommendation hadn’t come up to scratch. “It started off okay but it went a bit Hollywood at the end.”
And then I’m in the conversation and for the next few minutes as we stand there, my brain is buzzing, trying to remember the points I want to make. It’s clearly all primed in the mind of the reader in front of me. Perhaps when you’re struggling with your own demons, trying to make the rights choices, you don’t want to read about people who deceive themselves, and repeatedly make bad choices.
We talk and it reminds me why I love discussing books, particularly when a discussion pops up unexpectedly like this. I might not have chosen the right book for this particular reader but we are enlivened by the argument. It is a bridge between us. An equalizer.

Back to sending books to prisoners. The best comment I saw was from Russell Webster who simply tweeted Depends on what they want to read. Exactly.