Reading to Young Children – and What Happens Next!

In recent years I’ve become rather worried about how much kids are actually reading, and what (if any) encouragement they are being given to do so.  And, before I begin, I think it might be necessary to define what I mean by ‘reading’. I do not mean consuming an endless stream of brief, and generally trivial, communications. I mean tackling texts which are lengthy, complex and subtle, and require some effort – texts which stand some chance of improving the reader’s understanding of the confusions and problems, the joys and delights of human existence and our relationship with our physical world.


But a child’s reading-life has to begin somewhere. So I was very interested in the talk given by Belinda Spry of The Little Big Book Club at our AGM back in February. As is well-known, her organization’s aim is to encourage parents to read aloud to their children in their first five years, and thus provide them with a solid foundation for formal literacy teaching later on. It’s clear enough, although not usually actually stated, that their major emphasis is on children of lower socio-economic status, whose parents might not normally do this. This was made particularly obvious by the research on which Belinda’s talk was generally based – she very kindly sent me a selection of papers later.


By-and-large I found the contents of the research fairly familiar: it has been going on for half-a-century throughout the English-speaking world, and has produced grimly consistent results: children of a lower socio-economic background start school in a state of massive deficit, and the school-experience does not improve this – in fact the gap between them and their more fortunate contemporaries widens. Perhaps the most alarming of the papers Belinda provided me with said that one recent American study had demonstrated that working-class children have 30 million fewer experiences with words than professional-background children by the age of three! (‘The Early Catastrophe’: Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.) This, of course, suggests that government-funded early-intervention projects beginning at the age of three or four are already too late.


The obvious alternative approach: namely, to induce all parents to provide their children with experiences similar to those professional parents apparently provide ‘naturally’, is essentially what Belinda’s organization is trying to promote. I am not going to say that this won’t work. As far as I know, intervention programs over the last fifty years have largely been of a professional nature, and again, as far as I know, such positive results as they have produced have simply vanished in the early years of schooling. Perhaps intervening via parents will generate more permanent benefits, although it will obviously be a lot messier, and make it difficult for researchers to study exactly what is happening. But if we are to go down this pathway, I’d say The Little Big Book Club is going to need a lot of help!


I now want to move on, because I think the issue of ensuring that all children arrive at school with a similar range of language and literacy experiences, enormous though it is, is only one of our current problems. If children are to become readers of the sort I described in paragraph 1, they still have a very long way to go. Are they being helped much? The answer to this question should be a resounding, ‘Yes’, because surely that’s what schools are supposed to do. But my own suspicion is that it’s actually, ‘No’, in a lot of cases. I think there are two reasons for this: one is the acrimonious debate that has been going on in educational circles for something like twenty years about methods of teaching reading; the other is the equally acrimonious debate about the place of technology in education.


I think we have now all come to the conclusion that the most efficient, and generally successful, way of  teaching reading is by ‘phonic methods’ (purists will no doubt want to argue about the terminology). Personally, I rejoice at this, since it’s what I was doing in my teaching years anyway. Unfortunately, however, the alternative, and now discredited, method was generally known as ‘literature-based’. For a start, this suggests that there’s something wrong with literature. Secondly, surely it’s obvious to any teacher, no matter how devoted they might be to phonics, that the moment a child has begun to grasp how the written code works, you should start moving them away from ‘readers’ and onto children’s books of genuine literary value? My impression, however, is that this clearly sensible course of action has not appealed to the ‘experts’, and thus children’s literature is now playing only the most minimal part in the education of very many children.


Information technology has, I think, been the subject of a great deal of grand-standing in educational circles. Not so long ago we were being told that the physical book was on the verge of disappearing, the traditional school library was an anachronism, and shortly we would all be reading from screens. And in a couple of well-publicized cases large schools disposed of both their librarians and their libraries, and supplied their students with lap-tops instead.


But actually, I don’t want to debate any of that. Instead, I want to discuss how children might be encouraged to read in an entirely electronic environment. As it happens, I belong to an academic library which deals in materials which are basically very expensive, and are therefore increasingly only available by electronic means – it’s the cheapest way. So how does this library operate? For a start, it employs three highly qualified librarians, so that if you need help it is very readily available (and they never make you feel like an idiot!). Every week I receive two or three emails telling me about new acquisitions, interesting and informative blogs, reminders about how to access things, and information about how to get round the system when part of it has gone down (that was this morning!). The physical library still exists, and of course you can borrow physical books. But it is also used as a study space, a venue for the quieter sort of meeting, and a display space for works of art. And there is a regularly up-dated display of the latest e-books available.


Surely therefore, on this example, a school which no longer emphasizes the physical book should have a highly qualified librarian (with a proper work-space!) whose job it is to make kids aware of the fictional e-books available, continually up-date them on the best blogs and web-pages, and liaise with other teachers about non-fiction materials in relation to their broader studies. But I don’t get the impression that this is happening. I think that in state schools at least the common scene is that there is no teacher-librarian, very little in the way of a library budget, and a school-assistant presides over an increasingly battered collection of old books.


We are repeatedly told by the media that by international comparisons, our literacy standards are plummeting. This usually generates a good deal of hand-wringing. But nobody seems to connect this to the loss of school-libraries, the loss of librarians, and, as far as I can see, the lack of any system for encouraging children to engage in broad reading for recreational purposes. Why not? To me, it’s obvious that if kids are not reading, they will not be good readers, and therefore will do rather badly in literacy tests!


Val van Putten

And PS, if anybody is interested in a research report which relates directly to the benefits of reading aloud to pre-school children, ‘Reading to Young Children: A Head-Start in Life’ produced by the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, and available on-line, discusses this.

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