Here is an important comment in the Guardian on the withdrawal of funding for book giftting.
People will remember Michael Gove speaking at the most recent Conservative Party conference calling on schools to be places where children read great authors, such as Dryden and Pope. Though some of us were a little mystified as to why he had plucked those two particular authors from the pile, I for for one thought for half a moment, that perhaps this government was going to put out its stall as a champion of the reading of literature. As the Guardian recorded, I tried on several occasions to interest first Ed Balls and Jim Knight, then Vernon Coaker in the idea of the Education department asking schools to develop their own policies on reading for pleasure.
Reading for pleasure can easily sound like some kind of wishy-washy, soft option, while instructional stuff like learning-to-read through ‘synthetic phonics’ and endless worksheets requiring children to answer questions about the facts in short passages, sound to some tough and purposeful. In actual fact, as the PIRLS research of 2006 has shown, children who read for pleasure achieve better school performance than those that don’t.
How come? It is because literature – the stuff that children will mostly read for pleasure – takes children into abstract thought in two main ways: it marries ideas with feelings attached to beings they care about. So while the reader is caring about what happens, the scenes and the flow of the book deals with ideas. So children will come across ideas of, say, anger, fear, jealousy, justice, compassion and much, much more. The other way is through what we can call ‘acts of comparison’. Any child who reads widely, often and for pleasure will inevitably make comparisons between what they’re reading, why they’re reading and how they’re reading. You only have to listen to such children talking to hear how they compare plot types, character types, outcomes, further possibilities across books and between books, TV and films. This too is a form of abstract thinking available to all.
So we have a government which is taking the ideological step of blocking off one possible route by which all children can gain access to this way of becoming part of these ways of thinking. This, we hear, will save them all of Â£12million.
Perhaps, some might say, the government has some other proposal up its sleeve to help bring about reading for all? Well, the consequence of their policies is closing hundreds of libraries, so it’s not happening, say, through increased co-operation between schools and libraries. We know that Michael Gove and his department have ‘reading’ on their agenda, because they keep talking about ‘synthetic phonics’. They are asking all schools to teach initial reading solely through this method. So, again, no books there, as phonic books are books that are not only written phonically (bit, bat, bet, but etc) but they end up actually being about phonics.
One clue as to where this government’s head is at on reading came on the Today programme recently when John Humphrys confronted Michael Gove with some new research which claimed that many boys are leaving primary school with ‘a reading age of 7’. Humphrys asked Gove what he was going to do about it. Gove answered that he was going to oblige all schools to teach using synthetic phonics, he was going to make it easier for schools to become academies and he was going to find out what reading schemes work the best and ask schools to adopt those.
I immediately asked myself, why didn’t he mention ‘books’? Wouldn’t an intelligent man like Michael Gove, a lover of Pope and Dryden, think that one way to get young children more literate is to get them reading books? In fact, the primary school literacy curriculum is clogged up with a strategy based on short passages of reading and writing, most of which bores most children and most teachers.
We are at a moment of crisis here. We need all people, everyone to think for themselves, to think critically, to think abstractly, to develop their powers of empathy. We need a government that can use the evidence of a report like the PIRLS report, and do all it can to create schools that are the hubs, the focal points for universal reading.