Thursday, 29 November 2007

Literacy - the path less chosen

I have just got back from 10 days in the US attending the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) where I was talking about the Shakespeare resources I have developed (more about those later). In walking around, my eye was taken by a reading system called “plugged into reading”, which has been developed by Janet Allen in the US. Now, my interest is not in literacy but I was taken by her approach, which was not phonics, or rote-learning or based on any system… it was built on great literature. She hand-picks books (both fiction and non-fiction) for a series of age groups and offers them the books and the audio version to listen to as they read. Of course this is what attracted me as I am a 100% advocate for audio in the classroom. Having trialled my own audio-based resources with hundreds of students and teachers I know how the imagination is stimulated by audio, and especially audio drama (my speciality). So I looked closer at the “plugged into reading” course – and yes, it has classroom time used to read and simultaneously listen but the second stage struck me as hugely innovative. This is a peer system where the students are placed in small groups and each one is given a job within that literature circle, and a title. One student is the tour guide, leading the group through the text, another is the archaeologist, looking to unearth connections in the book, another is the magician looking to see how the book could be different. There are more, and here is a link to read further, but I was blown away because this was no longer about reading but it was about becoming a detective and in my own SmartPass resources our stated aim is to enable students to become literature detectives.
So yesterday as I heard politicians arguing about the result of England and Scotland in the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) I felt quite cross. Labour threw out the figures for money they had invested (lots) and how they had introduced phonics all over the country. The conservatives said the money was squandered and that phonics was hardly used and everybody blamed the computer game. It seemed like a witch hunt on parents who let their kids waste their time on games and on all those Peter Pan developers who never grew up and don't want to see our kids grow either. But is it really the case we want to blame them?

In the UK children spend 3 hours on average on computer games. Okay so that seems like a lot, but nobody asked; what is a computer game? Well it varies but it is generally a quest to collect enough skills to win something or defeat some great evil… in essence it is a narrative. It is a great novel boiled down to its constituent parts and within that is a mystery to unravel, keys to find – it is literature and it stimulates the brain and the imagination but does not teach you how to read? No! But it uses the parts of literature that grip you... reading is just a skill, what we need to be activating in our students is a love of literature – the realisation that the stories in books, the quests and challenges are far more entertaining if you read them than if you waggle your thumbs on a joystick. It is a paucity of imagination that is forcing our students down, not just a reading skill. Lets tackle bringing literature alive for the student – let’s take away the visual stimulation that makes them lazy and ask them to listen in the classroom. Then let’s ask them to become detectives and tease out the meaning – make connections to history and society and to other books. We have compartmentalised our curriculum so much that nothing is inter-disciplinary – but the world is and literature is. Reading is not just a skill to tick off, it informs all of life and the way in which we interface with the world is the real skill to test. Politicians need to stop arguing and look to creatively using the fantastic literature out there to energise the student. There has never been so much great writing for young people, such access to literature that touches the body and soul of young people. Writers speak to young people at a very deep level and we need to use that. I have called this post -literacy, the path less chosen as I believe we are on the wrong course. We muct stop teaching from the point of view of evaluation and tests, if we don’t then it does not matter if all of our kids can read, because they won’t. They will watch TV and play games and lose out on the incredible journeys the mind can take.

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