Reading the Years

Janet and John

Janet and John

I learned to read with Janet and John; that is to say-I was taught using the reading scheme, Janet and John, not alongside 4 and 5 year olds with those names [although there may well have been Janets and Johns in my class]. The prose was simple, repetitive and tedious but did the trick. I recall that the satisfaction of achieving the decoding of the words was enough to motivate me. I believe the time taken to learn to read was very short, as I was very quickly moving on to the likes of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which I was soon able to quote long chunks of, so familiar did I become with its enchanting story line.

Janet and John was of its time, the 1950s. The family was standardised mother, father, boy, girl and dog. They were white and middle class. Janet was pictured helping mother in the kitchen while John and his father did manly chores involving the garden. These were not riveting tales. Most sentences ran along the lines of ‘Run, John, run’. He would not be running to avoid the attention of the police or to save the planet but in some vague notion of play.

By the time I was myself teaching children to read, the Ladybird scheme had arrived, although the cultural and socio-economic portrayal of the characters was not a jot different. This time the children were called Peter and Jane, the dog Pat. I feel I should apologise, here and now to the children in my class in Stockwell, London who had no option but to use these books with their white, middle class nuclear family. They must have seemed as alien as the bar in Star Wars for children whose cultural backgrounds were African, West Indian or Asian and who lived in tenement blocks in 1970s London.

Later still, my own children were given ‘One, Two, Three and Away’ books, which at least had story lines-albeit surreal. There were the beginnings of some kind of diversity, with deviant ‘Percy Green’ portrayed as a naughty boy-the character small children loved the most.

When I returned to teaching after an eight year child break there was a bright, shiny new scheme. Political correctness was burgeoning and the books went some way towards addressing it. There was still a white family with a dog [‘Floppy’] but there was the addition of Wilf and Wilma, Nadim and Aneena and their families. Everyone continued to be middle class, with no depictions of unemployment or single parents, but this is to be expected since nobody wants children to learn to read using material based on dispiriting circumstances.

Since the early 90s subsequent governments have meddled with increasingly heavy-handed interventions in the teaching of reading-each new education minister eager to make their mark and overturn the previous ‘big’ idea, regardless of what teachers know and have always known. Normal well supported children can learn to read from the back of a cereal packet but get their richest experiences from real, proper books. Those from homes with little language input and impoverished bookshelves cannot.

Who can resist the lure of children’s books these days? They get better every time I visit the book store!

Book Heaven

Today, Thursday 7th March, is World Book Day.

                Children, it seems are becoming less interested in reading books and less inclined to pick one up in their leisure time, according to a study last autumn, [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19511825].

                What a shock! Who would have thought it? And what has caused this ‘drop off’ of interest in books? Again, no surprises here. It is the rise and rise of screen based activities [or rather, non-activities, since sitting in front of one can hardly be described as active].

                Most people take for granted the fact that developing technology is, broadly speaking a good thing, and of course it is. It improves life in countless ways. But myself, I’d have to say that for young children it is something that they need exposure to in moderation. Computer games were in their infancy when my own children were young so I suppose I was fortunate not to have to face too much in the way of battles over restricting access, but if I were dealing with the situation now I would feel obliged to impose limits to playing on games consoles etc

                You could argue that it doesn’t matter, or that screen based games are beneficial. Late in my previous life as a proper working teacher there was one small boy who violently resisted all efforts to educate him and was both unable and unwilling to sit down and either read, write or listen to anything. His mum claimed that this behaviour was at odds with his manner at home, because he could sit for hours to concentrate on his Playstation games. Apparently, an ability to focus on shooting space aliens or achieving the next level in a car crash game denotes high order thinking. In order to address his fixation with computers we allowed him unbridled access to one in the classroom for writing tasks and so on. The result was not a success and he could generally be seen climbing around and under the worktop or disrupting others as before.

                And does it matter if they don’t read books? Well, no, as long as they read something. Because without the skill of reading life really does become very limited and difficult. There is a true story on the World Book Night website [[http://www.worldbooknight.org/books/2013] more of which in later posts] of an adult woman who’d never learned to read, and of the difficulties she faced in almost every area of her life. But I always told parents who complained that their child didn’t want to read a book that they could read a comic, a football magazine, a cereal packet or the Argos catalogue if they liked, as long as they read something.

                But aren’t we missing a trick? If our children are wanting to spend all their spare time in front of computer games then it is the games that should change, isn’t it? Surely it is not beyond the wit of manufacturers to incorporate text into them? There should be instructions, written dialogue, signs to identify, captions. I’m sure such games exist already, although probably not the popular ones, the ones they want to play. I’d make it compulsory to add text to computer games.

                To me, books, and in particular children’s books are simply wonderful, and will no doubt be the saving of bookshops, since there is no substitute whatsoever for sitting down to share a gorgeous, colourful, lift-the-flap, scratch and sniff, rhyming, pictorially stimulating, exciting or hilarious BOOK.