In conjunction with the National Association for the Teaching of English, the TES has just published a list of the top 100 fiction books all children should read before leaving primary school. At first glance, it seemed an inspired selection, rich with “classics” showcasing artful use of language and engaging storytelling. Many were favourites with my first classes nearly 20 years ago and there are plenty I recognise from my own childhood, too.
It’s this last fact that made me take a second, harder look at the list. I’m in no doubt about the calibre of all these books in absolute terms; I just wonder how many of them seem accessible to the children we’re trying to engage. It would therefore be interesting to see a version of the same list, this time prepared by the children themselves. How much cross-over would there be? And how would pedagogues rate the literary value of those choices?
Following the publication of this year’s SATs results, it feels as though we have reached a precarious point in the teaching of English. There is a massive disparity between the aspirations of policy-makers and adjudged levels of attainment in terms of children’s ability to access and respond to the sorts of text deemed “appropriate” for them. The reality of this is encapsulated in reaction to this year’s reading comprehension test.
If we genuinely want to drive up reading standards and equip children with the skills they will need for their futures, we need to recognise three things:
- In some regards, the skills these children require will be substantially different from those needed by previous generations. While we should still expect children to be able to cope with sustained reading and writing, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that many texts they will encounter will be concise, non-linear and often interspersed with graphical content. There’s an art to reading these, too.
- As society becomes increasingly diverse, we should look to an increasingly diverse range of literature to spark and fuel our children’s love of reading. William Nicholson’s oft-quoted “We read to know we’re not alone” (from Shadowlands) resonates with many a bookworm. Why, then, do we deprive so many children of these moments of revelation?
- We can’t necessarily improve reading skills by uncoupling them from texts that are relevant to the children we teach. Research in the USA has shown recently that children who received four 30-minute sessions a week focused purely on developing their vocabulary skills showed greater improvements than those who simply received comprehension-based language lessons. However, those who received eight 30-minute sessions showed no marked improvements beyond those achieved by the children attending only four sessions a week. This suggests, therefore, that a combination of specialist vocabulary work and more general comprehension work is important, so we should be relying on the texts we choose to assist in this regard.
Much has been written about the fact that the greatest determiner of educational achievement is a child’s socioeconomic background. This is shown starkly by research from the USA into literacy levels of 3-year-olds, which suggests that by this age children from high-income families are likely to have been exposed to somewhere in the region of 30 million more words than children from families receiving benefits. Similar patterns have been shown in the UK, hence the drive for improvements in early years provision.
If we’re to attempt to compensate for this gap, we must find ways to engage children with language and literature. If none of the stories told in these texts resonates with their own experiences, sooner or later they will lose interest. It’s therefore crucial that the corpus of literature we draw on as teachers and include on “suggested reading” lists is as diverse as possible. We readily accept that English-language literature will be translated into different languages and exported globally. Why, then, do we not demand that outstanding literature written in other languages is translated into English so that we have meaningful texts we can share in our multicultural classrooms?
All bookworms have old favourites they turn to periodically – usually when they need to retreat into their comfort zone – and these are often stories whose message chimes with us personally for some reason. Once we’ve indulged in a little “comfort reading,” we’re then ready to expose ourselves to new and unfamiliar stories and settings again.
One of my favourites is “Anne of Green Gables” by L.M. Montgomery. It’s not included on this latest list, though I’m pretty sure it would have made every top 100 when I was a child. I love that book and I would love others to love it, too. But I also understand that it’s about a world that’s increasingly irrelevant to today’s children.
It’s more important that the books we encourage children to read now are the right ones to engender in them a lifelong love of reading rather than simply ones that did the trick for us when we were younger. So as long as the book that bumped my favourite off the list is equally as rich in spirit and language, there’s a part of me that finds it reassuring that things are moving on.