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.