Growing a Child

This morning I gave an assembly at my children’s school on ‘Reading for Pleasure’. I’ll upload the materials to my website when I have the chance, although I’m afraid I won’t be able to upload the bed, duvet and pillows (thanks @raywilcockson) – some things you can’t replicate with technology. I talked with the children about how you bring a book to life – you have to read it, otherwise it’s just black scribbles on a page! I challenged them to ‘Read a Pile of Books as Tall as Yourself’. They were happy to share their ‘Desert Island Books’, to think about ‘What Reading Does for your Brain’ and to talk about which genres they enjoyed reading most. But there was a distinct divide between the younger children there, who were still reading for pleasure, and the older end of the age range, who weren’t so sure that they enjoyed it any more. Could it be (gasps in horror) that school has put them off reading?

I explained to the children that I became a writer because I couldn’t find the books I wanted to read. So, obviously, I had to write them myself. Let’s rewind 15 years …

I started writing books because I was fed up with the ones that I had been given to read at university. The authors all seemed so ‘up themselves’, quoting this bit or that bit of theoretical research or science at me to prove their particular viewpoint. But what I needed was a book that gave a commonsense and practical view of what happens in a classroom. One that reflected and acknowledged my own day-to-day experiences. That’s not to denigrate the place of research and theory, but if a writer wants me to connect with his or her words, I have to believe that what they say is relevant to my life. When people tell me they have read and quoted from one of my books in an essay at university, it makes me giggle nervously. Hopefully it’s just because they ‘clicked’ with me as a writer, and not because they think I have some brilliant ‘theory’.

One of the problems with being a writer (or blogger), and having an audience of readers, is the inherent danger in getting (to use the technical term) ‘a bit up yourself’. You are in constant danger of believing that you have a ‘theory’, and that you know all the answers. People call you by your surname, writing things in essays like ‘Cowley says’ (uuggh!). You start to believe in your own publicity – oh look, everyone’s listening to me, I must be hugely important. I’m very lucky in that my partner is excellent at pricking that particular authorial bubble.

Just at the moment I am reading a lot of voices on the internet who sound ‘a bit up themselves’. There’s a distinct whiff of intellectual snobbery in the air. It’s all a bit: “Take my Oxford education and I’ll raise you a gap year overseas.” “Well, I’ll see your Oxford, raise you a Cambridge, plus I can stick in a doctorate as well.” There are writers using all sorts of obscure references, which many of the great unwashed (me) don’t even get, to try and ‘out clever’ each other. Quite frankly, it makes me want to puke on my shoes.

Here’s the thing: I think we are completely missing the point. I think everyone is busy defending their corners, putting across their arguments, or positing their theories. But we have completely lost sight of the bigger picture.

When I think of the most deprived child I have ever taught, I don’t think ‘Oh Tristram was really lacking in knowledge, that was his problem’. Whenever I tried to teach some knowledge to him, he would tell me to f**k right off. Or he would just blank me. He was much too far gone. He had given up on education, and school, and (sadly, devastatingly) on learning.

If you want to help a child move ‘up’ in life, then they have to learn to love using language, to love learning, to love hearing stories, to make emotional connections with books, and knowledge, and ideas. Because everything that happens at school (including subjects such as maths) has to happen through language. It’s all about speaking and listening (even writing and reading are essentially only speaking and listening done on paper).

And how does this happen? Where does language development begin? Where do children learn to love to read? Well it doesn’t begin in school. (That starts five years too late.) It begins with a small child, snuggling up to mum or dad, with a book and a massive cuddle full of love. If you don’t plant the seed early, and get the child growing strongly, then you will be playing catch up forever more. You will be squirting ‘knowledge’ on children, like it’s some kind of fabulous new fertilizer, in an attempt to ‘level the playing field’ and get all the plants growing to the same height.

An experienced speech and language therapist once told me that children can catch up on language acquisition really well in the early years, but that the door closes at about age five. If we are truly serious about helping children fulfill their potential, then we have only one sensible choice. We have to start as young as possible (which is where the EYE funding and the early years’ intervention grant come in). We have to support parents in looking after their young children. We must focus completely on maintaining a love of language and of learning, whatever it takes. And we must never let school get in the way of that.

This entry was posted in Children, Early Years, Motivation, Parents, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Growing a Child

  1. David Didau says:

    Sue, maybe I’m misreading you but this seems to glory in ignorance. It’s not a great response to not getting others’ references to want to puke on your shoes – even metaphorically. Much better to use your impressive domain specific knoweldge, look it up and engage, meaningfully, in the debate.

    That aside, it may actually be true that ‘it’s all speaking and listening’. It’s become increasingly clear to me (through long and bitter classroom experience, not a doctorate) that if you can’t say it, you can’t write it. Schools are preoccupied which the social aspects of talk and neglect its cognitive properties. The most useful thing I could do for your amusingly named Tristram is to teach him how to think (and write) by getting him to speak using academic register rather than everyday speech. It’s not OK to refuse to do this because you’re worried he’ll tell you to fuck off, and it’s certainly not OK to give up on trying to change that after the age of 5. If we’re not going to try, who is?

    Anyway, hopefully this doesn’t fail your pomposity test, and maybe you’ll want to debate the ideas instead of the clumsiness of my transmission.

    Thanks, David


    • suecowley says:

      Hi there David,

      Thanks for your response. I’m not so sure that I’m glorying in ignorance, rather that I’m suggesting that other people’s cultural references might not be the same as mine and might indeed be off putting to me (which in some instances is, I suspect, the idea). Where people use what we used to call ‘high falutin’ language to write about their ideas, they run the risk of alienating the unwashed majority. Just because people are really clever, doesn’t mean they are necessarily wise, or that I am necessarily interested in reading what they have to say if they don’t have the skill to ‘click’ with me. The skill of a writer is to make me want to read what they say, just as the skill of a teacher is to make children want to learn what they teach. It is not good enough, in my opinion, to suggest that it is the reader or the child’s fault if they don’t ‘get you’. Yes, I can look it up, but then so can children, surely, which negates the whole ‘knowledge is king’ argument doesn’t it? The times it makes me want to puke on my shoes is when it is done to make the writer appear ‘clever’ rather than to illuminate something useful for the reader. (i.e. the ‘you’re too up yourself’ test). It’s a visceral human reaction to the feeling that someone thinks they are superior to you because they know more. I’m not ashamed of that.

      Knowledge is great and all that, but speaking as an adult the only time that much of what I learned at school made sense is when I actually had to use it in real life. My very strong sense is that teaching is as much an intuitive, emotional skill as it is an intellectual, evidence based one. In fact, it’s probably even more of a physical skill which seems to get completely neglected (as in movement and non verbal communication).

      I’m glad you got the irony of dear old Tristram’s name, and of course I’m not saying that you should give up on him, all good teachers would obviously try their best. But what I am saying is that I think secondary age is often too late to undo the damage – I’ve taught those 12, 13, 14 year olds who cannot read or use language and who are completely disaffected with school, but I’ve also taught those 3 year olds who clearly have a language deficit that is going to impact on their entire education and at that age we can actually do something about it. I think it would benefit teaching a great deal if all primary and secondary teachers were required to teach for a while in the other sector, as this might open their eyes to a lot of the issues. For instance, why secondary school seems to put some children off learning/reading and why it’s hard to teach 30 children to read in a year.

      Zadie Smith made a very interesting argument the other day, which is to wonder why we assume that people want to ‘escape’ their background? Yes, if your background is neglectful or abusive, then absolutely you would want to do that. But if your background is simply a different set of cultural references, that you are perfectly happy with, then shouldn’t teachers do as much to ‘get’ you as you do to ‘get’ them.


  2. redpeffer says:

    Very well said.


  3. David Didau says:

    Hi Sue, thanks for engaging. You raise a few points which I think deserve a response. So here goes:

    1. Of course it’s not good enough to suggest it would a child’s fault if they didn’t ‘get’ what they were being taught. That’s why I have never suggested it.

    2. *You* can look up stuff and make sense of it because of your huge knowledge and experience. Children can’t. Not unless they’re taught some of the background knowledge required to make sense of what they discover. If you haven’t already it’s really worth reading this:

    3. Why would you want to ‘escape’ your background? You might not, but this is a decision best taken from a position of choice. Zadie Smith has this choice because of her impressive background knowledge. The success of her writing is due to the breadth of her reading. She was fortunate to grow up with a family which valued reading and encourage her to do it. What about those children without her considerable advantages? If we don’t teach the background knowledge that the cultural elite take for granted we take away their choice and guarantee their continued exclusion. Bordiueu’s arguments for cultural capital were motivated by his Marxist desires for an egalitarian society, not an attempt to shore up some outmoded right-wing hegemony.

    Again, I’m not interested in being ‘high falutin’ but it’s worth remembering that using such terms to denigrate other people’s arguments is very similar to George W Bush’s attacks on the eminently more thoughtful and considered Al Gore. We can do a bit better than aspiring to be ‘just folks’.


  4. suecowley says:

    Hi again David

    Thank you for taking the time to respond again, I do appreciate it. I read the article and it is interesting. I do understand this idea about knowledge being needed to build knowledge, and I’d particularly agree with the notion of early language acquisition being vital. I was talking with my seven year old about personification the other day, which I guess not all parents would do.

    I do strongly believe that children can build up this bedrock of knowledge through reading, as long as they have a secure early grasp of how to do that, and the language acquisition that underpins it. If we can get all children reading well, and enjoying books early, then give them access to great books via school and local libraries, then surely this can make a huge contribution?

    My experience of UK schools is that teachers might use a topic to cover various different subject areas at primary but that this is definitely not the same as the projects that Hirsch is describing from his own childhood. It’s often just a quick way to cover humanities and sciences under one umbrella, which has been caused by the time constraints that an hour of literacy and numeracy each morning create.

    My fear of the ‘core knowledge’ argument is not that it’s wrong, but that it is potentially damaging to the role of teachers in autonomous and creative decision making, and that we need to think very carefully about who gets to decide on the knowledge that is at the so-called ‘core’. In the US I believe from what I read that students will be tested on their core knowledge via a computer program. If I’m a teacher who is relying on my students passing this ‘test’, then how willing am I going to be to take an hour out for some drama, or to spend a couple of hours doing papier mache masks with my students? Does knowledge outweigh all other aspects of an education – that for me is the key question as a parent and a teacher. For me it can only be a small part of a fully rounded education.

    In terms of the whole ‘high falutin’ language thing, it wasn’t directed at you and it’s not about wanting people to be ‘just folks’, or ‘footmen’ as someone said previously. However, there is sometimes a feeling in academia that if you write in a certain way, this makes you appear to be clever. To my mind, what’s best is to express yourself clearly and intelligently in a way that will allow as many people as possible to have access to your ideas. (That’s why I started writing books.) I guess some could say that’s ‘dumbing down’ but I don’t see it that way.

    I would like people to stop suggesting that an academic education is the be all and end all. For some it’s the goal, but for others it’s not. How about music, or drama, or art, or dance, or all those other potential choices we could make in life? If school becomes a place where we learn a narrow range of ‘core’ material, do we run the risk of shutting out all those other choices?

    I would also like people to start talking about what the ‘lively teaching’ that Hirsch talks about actually looks like – how specifically, in practical ways, do they achieve the teaching of facts with their most challenging students? That way, others can do the same. Thanks for the reply and sorry for the length of this response!


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