I read with interest your speech on ‘The Importance of Storytelling’ and I thought you might appreciate some feedback. I have tried to adhere to the rule that feedback should be ‘specific, helpful and kind’.
I’m afraid it is quite long, partly because I’ve quoted sections of the speech so you can easily see what I’m referring to (they’re in bold, so you can skip over them if you like) but also because some of your ideas need some careful unpicking. I’ve not dealt with things strictly in the order that you did because you did wander about a bit and I thought it would be more effective to group some of the ideas together.
Hope it’s helpful!
Today, I want to talk about the importance of storytelling, of children being read to and told stories, not only in the years before they start school but throughout their education.
You seem to be conflating storytelling and being read to. There is a world of difference between the two. Storytelling at its most powerful is a performance which actively engages and involves the listener in a shared experience. Being read to is a much more solitary experience, where the listener is freed from the effort of decoding to travel in their own mind’s eye. This is not to say that being read to is not valuable or enjoyable, it’s just a different thing, like apples and cucumbers are different things.
You are right that storytelling is vital, though you seem to regard it only as a vehicle to develop children’s reading skills; it is so much more than that. Storytelling is central to the way we communicate, both in passing on information – you later give examples of stories that teachers might tell to illuminate historical and scientific concepts – but also in building and sustaining relationships of all kinds.
It is difficult to overstate the benefits of instilling a love of reading in a child. According to research by the OECD, reading for pleasure is more important than a family’s socio-economic status in determining a child’s success at school.
I wouldn’t disagree with you here, but I would point out that there is often a correlation between a family’s socio-economic status and a child’s opportunity to develop a love of reading, sometimes because the child doesn’t have access to high quality books, sometimes because parents have very little time to read to and with their child because they’re working very long hours.
Remarkably, the combined effect of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was 4 times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.
Again, good point, Nick, but there have to be libraries, and libraries which are accessible to parents with children (libraries are free, but buses are not) in order for children to go to them regularly. This is something you and your government can do something about.
and a wide vocabulary is decisive in becoming a confident reader.
Yes, a wide vocabulary is useful in becoming a confident reader, but some other issues crop up here. The first requirement in learning to read, is that the child wants to learn to read, and sees the potential enjoyment to be had in reading. Indeed, this is mentioned in the statutory requirements: “Pupils should be taught to:
- develop pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding by:…”
And also, the books that adhere to this requirement are, well, limited. They have to be written specifically for this purpose and I have witnessed those who adhere to this principle teaching children the most archaic words which fell out of use long, long ago, just so that they have a synonym which follows the rules. This approach is unlikely to support a vide vocabulary.
Mastering the mechanics of decoding has to be the first objective - it is the gateway towards being a successful reader. This is best achieved through structured schemes of systematic phonics, with plenty of practice reading books that are consistent with the level of phonic knowledge the child has been taught.
Ok, I think I’ve already dealt with that.
The second objective of the English curriculum is practice - encouraging children to improve the fluency and speed of their reading by reading large numbers of books. The more you read, the more vocabulary you acquire and the easier it becomes to comprehend.
Well, maybe. But being able to read fluently at speed, does not necessarily mean that you understand the text, and developing comprehension involves a lot more than just acquiring vocabulary. You need to have a sense of context, an understanding of the way particular genres of story and ‘non-story’ texts work. You have to be able to read actively, to anticipate, to develop skills of inference and deduction – the list goes on. The point, it is not just the volume of reading that makes a ‘better’ reader, but the quality of the reading.
For this reason, I would like to see every pupil in years 3 to 6 of primary school reading at least 1 book a week. ‘A book a week’ should be the mantra for anyone hoping to eliminate illiteracy in this country.
Ok, I see where you’re coming from, but ‘a book a week’ is a bit arbitrary isn’t it, especially when coupled with your desire for children to read more ‘challenging’ books (see below). If they have to ‘get through’ a book in a week, how many children do you think would opt for longer, ‘more challenging’ novels over short ‘easy’ read-it-in-one-session-at-bedtime books?
The third objective of the English curriculum is to help pupils read more challenging books. Teachers should set for their classes those books that are slightly more challenging than the ones pupils would elect to read on their own. And that too involves teachers reading to their pupils.
Ah now. Here we need some clarification. When you say teachers should ‘set for their classes’ I’m not sure where you’re anticipating the reading of these more challenging texts will take place. If you’re talking about a text that is mediated in the classroom, fine, except for the wildly erroneous assumption that all children in the class will be of the same reading ability, but we’ll gloss over that.
If you’re talking about ‘reading for pleasure,’ ie., reading recreationally, independently, without the support of a more experienced reader, this needs some sensitive handling.
Firstly, we have to remember that the pleasure we are talking about needs to be the child’s and therefore the child needs to have some say in the choice. This is rather at odds with the notion of the book being ‘set’.
Secondly, recreational reading is exactly that, recreational, not hard work. We all read books below our ‘reading ability’ when we ‘read for pleasure’ because the purpose of the reading is the ‘pleasure’ not the act of reading. There is nothing wrong with making recommendations to children of other books that they may enjoy, which might be more stretching but well within their capability, indeed, many children would welcome this. But here we are back to the libraries thing again. Fewer and fewer schools have chartered librarians who have the skills and knowledge to make these recommendations; public libraries are becoming harder to access and teacher workload means that it’s simply impossible for class teachers to keep up with all the wonderful books being published for children and young adults. Recently I saw ‘Life of Pi’ on a school reading list for year 5. I can only assume the teacher who recommended it had not actually read it themselves.
What I see too often happening, indeed, what happened to me, is that ‘challenging’ is too often confused with ‘long’, ‘old’ and ‘written for adults’. In my case, as a 10-year-old, quite prolific, reader, I was told to read Austen. There was nothing enjoyable about the experience of reading about people sitting in drawing rooms discussing the nature of marriage in a world of which I had no understanding and it took me 30 years to forgive Jane Austen for ruining my evenings. When I finally returned to them a few years ago, I found her books funny and clever and altogether wonderful.
And again, school libraries and teacher workload are something you and your government could do something about.
From my own education I remember being read to throughout my time at school: from ‘Stig of the Dump’ at junior school, to Alastair MacLean, Hammond Innes, and L P Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’ in the third year of secondary school. After the first couple of pages read to us by the teacher, pupils would take it in turns to read aloud the next sections. We did this, I remember, with ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ in the fourth year, ‘Great Expectations’ in the fifth year and even on into the sixth form where we read together as a class D H Lawrence’s ‘The Rainbow’ and Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.
This process gave me the confidence to take on challenging books, that were much more difficult than those I would otherwise have chosen. And it worked - I went on to read many more MacLean, Dickens, Lawrence and Steinbeck books thanks to my teachers.
Ok, so here we’re talking about the mediated texts again. That’s fine (though I’m not sure about ‘The Go-Between’ in year 9). The manner of the mediation, i.e., ‘reading round the class’ is not one that most educationalists and teachers would recommend. While it may have worked for you, for many whose reading skills are less developed, these sessions are a source of huge anxiety where their academic weaknesses are laid bare for all their peers to see, and for which they fear ridicule. For capable readers, listening to others read is frustratingly slow as we read much faster in our heads than we read aloud; couple this frustration with having to listen to the reader struggle and stumble and we’re not in the realms of a happy classroom. There are much better ways. Perhaps you could spend some time talking to teachers about what those ways are.
Getting lost in a good story can allow you to discover more about the world, more about humankind, and more about yourself.
Absolutely. Nail, head, hit. But this is unlikely to happen if you are restricted to reading “books that are consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use other strategies to work out words”
Story time is a crucial part of any primary school’s timetable, as it has such power to build a child’s vocabulary. The type of story or book being read can be more challenging than a book the child chooses to read for him or herself.
Once again, yes-ish. Story time is crucial, but not just because of its possible impact on vocabulary, indeed, this is possibly just a happy side effect. It is crucial because, to quote your own words, “Getting lost in a good story can allow you to discover more about the world, more about humankind, and more about yourself.”
I can’t imagine that there’s a primary school teacher (or secondary English teacher) in the land who would disagree with you on the importance of Story Time. The trouble is, Nick, the impact on schools of the high stakes assessments and accountability measures. Nowhere in the assessments are children assessed on their ability to ‘get lost in a good story’, nor does it appear in the Ofsted Schedule. This may well be an error of omission, or it may be because it’s difficult to count, and recently published assessment criteria do value the countable over the important. This too, is something you and your government could do something about.
The consequence of this is that teachers are under pressure to set a learning objective whose outcome is measurable for each lesson. If we were to set “Getting lost in a good story” as a lesson objective (I for one would heartily approve of this), what would be our measurable outcomes? And what would our differentiated success criteria look like? The sad fact is, that until the uncountable but immeasurably valuable elements of education are recognised and emphasised in our assessment and accountability structures, they are unlikely to find space in the school day.
… the more words a child knows at an early age, the greater their ability to read challenging texts.
Again, Nick, you’re a bit right here. But there are other factors that influence a child’s ability to read a challenging text. The first is the question of what you deem to be a challenging text. I suspect you mean one which has long words in it. But much of the challenge lies in what the text is about – the concepts it communicates - how readily the child can access them, and how much the child wants to access them.
… even highly educated people use less sophisticated vocabulary when speaking than the words used in a typical children’s book.
Yes, Nick, they do. This is because of the different affordances of the different modes. In speech, when we can see our audience and interact with them, we can draw on other aspects of communication. We can use body language, we can emphasise points by changing our intonation and pace; we can reiterate points and we can answer questions; we can make use of deixis to point to things that both speaker and listener can see, and so on and so on.
Your point seems to be underpinned by a belief that less ‘sophisticated’ vocabulary – I suspect by this you mean vocabulary that owes more to Old English than to Latin and the Romance languages, that is less archaic – is less good. If we over-value this ‘sophisticated’ vocabulary, whatever the context, we will end up with children who speak like Russell Brand, and no one want that.
What you are perhaps getting at is more to do with helping children to make precise language choices in their writing. I think you might find it makes more sense to think about vocabulary in terms of its appropriacy to a given register and therefore its effectiveness in communication.
Of course, National Storytelling Week celebrates the oral tradition of storytelling: fables, folk tales and fairy lore. As long as human civilisation has existed, we have shared stories. For those looking to communicate a message, encapsulating it in a well told story has long been the most effective method.
Oh good, back to Storytelling and its centrality. Except that your examples aren’t really storytelling as I understand it – it’s good to use stories to help explain things, but it’s not the same thing. Apples and cucumbers again. You might like to have a word with Chris Smith at www.storytellingschools.com He can show you just how powerful real storytelling is in the classroom, and the impact of teaching children to become storytellers on their learning. You could look, too, at the case studies on www.buckswriteproject.com where teachers used storytelling (along with other strategies) to transform learning.
I do question why, when I am on school visits, I see teachers in the first 3 years of secondary school already using English literature lessons to prepare for GCSE-style questions. Instead of GCSE-style analysis of the text, should those lessons not be used to spread the sheer enjoyment of reading, through introducing pupils to a wide and varied diet of English and world literature? I am sure this would be far better preparation for their eventual examinations than a premature obsession with exam technique.
Yes, Nick, lessons should be used to spread enjoyment of reading. But to answer your question, we have to go back to the earlier points about accountability, assessment and Storytime.
Through our reforms to the English literature GCSE, children are being encouraged to read more challenging titles in years 10 and 11. Prior to our reforms, around 90% of pupils in the English literature GCSE delivered by one exam board answered questions on a single text: ‘Of Mice and Men’. Now, John Steinbeck is a great author (‘East of Eden’ is my all-time favourite book - it’s the Great American Novel) but even I doubt this short novella was deserving of such overwhelming attention.
The reason for the popularity of Mice and Men was that pupils found it engaging and enjoyable and teachers wanted their pupils to find reading pleasurable.
Since September, pupils have been studying the reformed English literature GCSE for the first time, including the study of both a 19th century novel and a modern book. Instead of a strict diet of Steinbeck, pupils can read George Orwell and Jane Austen, Kazuo Ishiguro and Charlotte Bronte - and they will be reading the whole novel, not just extracts.
Just for the record, the GCSE has always allowed pupils to study the authors you mention. In fact, in the days of coursework, the use of categories, rather than named authors, meant they were able to study a much greater range of writing.
Just out of interest, why is it that the only nationally prescribed poetry is The Romantic era? I’ve not seen any explanation of that, and I’d love to know what you think.