Great Novels and Great Headlines

In Debates and Polemics, Evidence in Education, Research Evidence by Alex Quigley1 Comment

Today Nicky Morgan announced her ‘rallying cry’ to make children in this country “become the best readers in Europe”. Flanked by comic-celebrity wordsmith David Walliams, she has launched salvos at the publishing industry for the prohibitive cost of the classics, alongside funding the ‘Chatterbooks’ reading initiative (an extracurricular activity to promote reading groups and reading for pleasure).

Surely, parents like myself (and English teacher no less) should be in celebratory mood. And yet, I am not gripping my copy of Henry V and punching the air with patriotic fervor. Now, don’t get me wrong – I am not an enemy of reading (nor an ‘enemy of promise’) and I do not think that this is wholly a bad policy, but I cannot escape a sad prediction that this pronouncement will amount to little more than great headline fodder when all is said and done.

It is with instinctive unease that I question initiatives that celebrate the act of reading. The reading of our great literary heritage is one of the drivers of my professional and personal life. Crucially, however, I think that the problem is much more complex than the solution that is being proposed. The lofty aim to make our children great readers is unequivocally laudable, but this policy sounds too much like proposing a wishing well when what you need to do is build a water treatment factory.

Let’s analyse the proposals. First, the issue of the cost of the classics. Well, I am certainly not averse to criticising publishers and their profiteering from school set texts or hiking up the cost of ebooks and the like, but asking private companies to subsidise the state has a bleak history worthy of a Dickens novel.

Should and could the classics be cheaper and more accessible? Yes, probably, but then many of them already are. At a couple of pounds you can deal in Hard Times and David Copperfield. The reality is that the cost isn’t prohibitive, but the cultural competition is tough. I don’t think cost is anything like the real issue, as children from all backgrounds wield their iPhones and iPads (where they can get a free copy of most classics) and fail to pick up a paperback.

Then we move to the notion of reading for pleasure and ‘Chatterbooks’. This ‘Reading Agency’ initiative is a reading for pleasure programme that sets up reading groups in libraries and is supported by celebrity authors and more. Nicky Morgan has signaled an investment in this programme to improve the literacy levels of our children, with an emphasis on the most disadvantaged.

Now, I dedicate much of my professional life to the power of reading, but my experience with those children who lack literacy skills is that that don’t read for pleasure because they have too many hurdles that mean reading can prove the opposite of a pleasurable experience.

In short, most can’t read very well – which pretty much kills all the pleasure!

It is interesting to read the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Toolkit evaluation of a ‘Chatterbooks’ in schools programme – see here. It shows, perhaps counter-intuitively, that this support for reading for pleasure has no impact upon literacy skills for those students who need to develop their literacy.

When you compare it to other structured reading program evaluations on the EEF Toolkit cited by Nicky Morgan (a quick scan of the EEF projects will find examples, like ‘Switch-On Reading’, which has significantly more impact than ‘Chatterbooks’ – see here), it is clear that to improve the literacy levels of our children we need to invest in programs that get to the root of weak reading skills. An explicit focus on early synthetic phonics helps, but that is no ‘silver bullet’ either.

Of course, we should not be limited by an either/or thinking paradigm here. If we want our children to be the best readers in Europe then I suspect we will have to invest in both: tackle illiteracy and then go on to encourage reading for pleasure with structural supports.

There is a cruel irony about the ‘Chatterbooks’ program. This reading rallying cry marks a clear intent that reading for pleasure, supported by our local libraries, should be developed. The small investment in this reading program is in reality dwarfed by the slashing local government cuts that are seeing libraries close all over the country – especially in areas of deprivation. The ‘Library Campaign’ estimates that at least 500 of the 4500 libraries in England are under threat. Schools, squeezed like local government to make a slew of cuts, cannot likely boost their library provision either. Funding a relatively small reading project whilst libraries are closing by the legion feels a little like an artful dodge.

You cannot grow thriving reading communities without the structural supports (like thriving local libraries) to do so. You cannot promote reading for pleasure without getting to the deep and complex roots of illiteracy and deficient reading skills. Of course, this requires sustained investment and a concerted effort involving multifarious strands of our social fabric beyond a simple celebrity laden press release.

Let’s hope that the ‘rallying cry’ is only the start and that the government are truly committed to helping our children become the best readers in Europe.

Comments

  1. A hugely interesting article. Morgan, and the rest of the political intelligentsia, are good at creating hype but when it comes to solving the real issues – such as economic disadvantage – little is debated. Instead, the said reading programme is used to hide the real issues.

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