Friday, 13 February 2009

Reading With Mother The Committee For Inclusivity And Social Responsibility In Reading Material, Ages 3 to 8…

Alice Miles in the ‘Times’ lays into the trendy educationalists and their penchant for providing reading material for children that has been subjected to the censor’s pen to remove any potentially objectionable material. With entirely predictable results:
Was ever a more dismal, soul-destroying set of stories created than the Oxford Reading Tree series, used in most primary schools? These books, or “reading schemes” as they are known officially, are utterly joyless, the reading equivalent of cold gruel. When opposition leaders claim the mantle of educational reform, as both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have this past week, I wonder whether they really mean to take on Chip and Kipper.
You mean, something designed by committee and poured over to ensure it ticks the inclusive/multicultural/accessible ticklist isn’t very stimulating to read…? Fancy!
This is a child's first introduction to reading, and then we wonder why British children go off books. Even the characters' names are dreadful: Chip and Kipper? Biff? Biff is a girl, incidentally: someone, somewhere, about a quarter of a century ago, decided to come up with a series of textbooks for young children starring a girl called Biff.
Well, I’ll give you ‘Chip’ and ‘Kipper’, admittedly, but what’s wrong with a girl called ‘Biff’?

No doubt they were following in the footsteps of Enid Blyton there, with her girl called ‘George’. Except she was actually called ‘Georgina’ and ‘George’ was obviously a nickname – is the same true of ‘Biff’, I wonder…?

But then I doubt the Oxford Reading Tree series will last as long as Blyton’s classics:
This is not reading stories, reading for imagination and excitement and love - it is reading as in “literacy” . Four out of five UK primaries now use the Oxford Reading Tree to teach the basic building blocks for reading.
You can’t expect anything produced ‘for literacy’ to encapsulate imagination, excitement and love – for that, you need to read books written by authors who don’t have their eye on the 7 inch thick ‘guidelines for the production of literacy material, volume 8’….
I have no doubt at all that 1,000 educationists will be able to demonstrate to me how the books introduce age-appropriate developmental blocks for the early learner. I am sure they tick all the early literacy targets. I am confident that after working their way through The Ice Cream (“I want the big one. Look at that! Look out, Kipper! Oh No! Splat!”) to Adam Goes Shopping and Joe and the Bike, most eight-year-olds will be able to sound out “b-o-r-e-d”.
Then, sadly, it’s up to the parents to teach them a love of books. As responsible parents have done from time immemorial…
In the 1980s, before the national curriculum deconstructed education into lists, books into passages and reading into phonemes, teachers and children read stories. Teachers introduced pupils to books as objects of surprise or of delight. Many pupils today will not have had that experience at home. Pity the child for whom a book will forever mean Biff's Aeroplane or Wet Paint. (Yes, they did call it that.)
I can remember ‘reading half hour’ at my infants school, and ‘reading hour’ (when we had access to the school library, and free rein to choose out own books) at my junior school.

With today’s obsession with grading and testing and ‘imparting social virtues’ there’s no time for that, I suppose. Mores the pity…
In all schools, book space is under pressure from the march of the screen, just as reading for fun has been replaced with ICT. I recently worked in a school where six-year-olds, a computer apiece, were learning basic graphic design and creating fireworks on their computer screens, but I was told off by a teacher for spelling out “colour” for a boy who asked me. The teacher wanted to encourage the children to guess: ‘kl', wrote one girl.
Ah, yes, Alice butts up against the trendy teaching theory that children should ‘discover knowledge for themselves’, rather than have it imparted to them. I mean, who is to say that Alice id right in her spelling of ‘colour’…?

And we wonder why we have an educational problem…
School libraries have been rebranded “learning resource centres” , their books shoved down one end of the room while computers take over the rest. The computers tend to be underused because of their controlled and anodyne content - rather, in fact, like the reading scheme books.
Another factor in the decline of educational standards – the desire for new, expensive, trendy bits of kit simply because they are new, with little thought given to whether they will be used effectively, or whether they are better in some way than the old methods...
The Conservatives are making growly noises about the quality of early years literature (and in particular its heavy reliance on pictures, which is another argument) but I wonder whether they will be prepared to fund whole new sets of books for schools.

And I wonder whether schools would want them to. Rather like the curriculum and all those targets and tick-boxes, I suspect that Chip and Kipper have become part of the educational fabric of the nation - teachers do not even notice any more quite how stultifying they are. I can think of no other explanation why a society that stirs itself into a frenzy over BBC stars insulting famous people has registered barely a squeak of protest over the long-running insult to children's imagination that is the Oxford Reading Tree.
Because no one hates change with the vehemence of the average public sector worker comfortably ensconced in a cosy little niche.


North Northwester said...

"Well, I’ll give you ‘Chip’ and ‘Kipper’, admittedly, but what’s wrong with a girl called ‘Biff’? "

Well, Julia, this orchid-like beauty is called Biff,

and she turned out alright, yeah?

Anonymous said...

I hate multicultural box ticking and stilted, joyless stories of postmodern rectitude and correctness, as you may gather.

But I must defend these stories. My children have worked/are working through them, and I think they're rather good. There is a cultural mix of characters, but there's no big deal made of it. They never attend ethnic festivals or enter into lengthy explanations of their culture.

Parents in the stories are married (to a person of the opposite sex), and the children have rough and tumble adventures without prying adults spoiling their fun.

Oh and my children are reading quite well, though of course Oxford Reading Tree isn't the sum total of their reading material.

Can't see the problem.

JuliaM said...

"Well, Julia, this orchid-like beauty is called Biff..."

Gah! I take it all back... ;)

"Oh and my children are reading quite well, though of course Oxford Reading Tree isn't the sum total of their reading material."

The latter may just have something to do with the former..?

Anonymous said...

Well, of course. The fact that I give a monkey's about my childrens' reading is a factor.

However, I still think the Biff and Kipper etc stories are fine in themselves. I can't find anything to complain about in them and they seem to build up steadily in difficulty, providing a reasonable foundation. Should probably stress the word "foundation" there.

Dr Evil said...

I can remember the teacher at primary school reading to us from the book, The Far Away tree, by of course, Enid Blyton. It was wonderful. I looked forward to that reading every week. It certainly helped me acquire a love of books and reading.

Biff! A complete arse in the Back to the Future films.