Education: Expecting too little could cost us a lot

Too many adults have dismally low expectations of what children will read when they should be stretching and challenging them.
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The Independent Online
Award-winning children's writer, Anne Fine, is worried that we are expecting far too little of children. It deeply concerns her that books that she has written for seven-year-olds, such as Bill's New Frock, are being used extensively in secondary schools. Helen Cresswell, another successful children's author, is concerned that people are "running scared". She fears that both parents and teachers are so terrified that their children aren't going to read that they offer them poor quality books which children might choose for themselves anyway. She feels adults have a responsibility to stretch and challenge children, and she is hopeful that the National Year of Reading will get more children reading better books.

However, whether the broad brush approach of the National Year of Reading, which targets everyone from babies to the elderly, will achieve its objectives remains to be seen. It was launched to get the National Literacy Project off to a flying start, and to popularise the idea of reading as a valid and enjoyable activity. But with all the hype about the (undeniable) importance of reading, the crux of the matter may have been obscured - which is that adults are not demanding enough of children.

The dismally low expectations all too many adults have of children, Anne Fine suggests, are reflected in the conflation of reading and literacy. Acquiring basic reading skills, being able to decipher print, is not the same as reading. Teachers can teach children the basic skills through phonics and other classroom-based techniques; and children should be expected to work through their class readers, but this should not be confused with reading, which children should not just be doing at school. Kimberley Reynolds, director of the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature, agrees that literacy and literature often get elided and treated as one and the same thing, "Literacy is how you learn to read and what level of ability you have, but literature is about quality of writing, the experience it can give you and the places it can take you. There's a lot of emphasis on basic literacy and much less on the other kind of experience - the imaginative, aesthetically pleasing things that can happen in the interaction with literature."

This conflation of literacy and literature has influenced publishers who, particularly with the launch of the National Literacy Project, are eager to cash in on schools' demand for books. The problem is that not only educational publishers but publishers of children's literature have developed a preference for publishing series of books for which they commission writers to write within specified constraints related to Government targets. Kimberley Reynolds suggests publishers seem to be more concerned about hitting targets than producing good books: "The emphasis goes so much on achieving targets which aren't actually very high."

She suggests that the preoccupation with children's "levels" imposes a kind of glass ceiling on what children can achieve. The sheer quantity of books at the "right level" makes it harder for them to come across books by serendipity, that might be above their "level", but which they nevertheless enjoy because of something that they find hard to define.

Another popular children's writer, Bernard Ashley, is also worried about publishers' eagerness to service Government directives. This has led many of them to rush to publish "big books" for classroom use which exclude writers of long books. ("Big books" are the latest phenomenon in schools - short, illustrated stories, in books large enough to be read by a large group of children.) "Children's publishing has been hijacked by the Government in that parents and teachers buy books that support what they have been told to do." It also worries him that the literacy hour only allows for children to read short extracts, and while the National Literacy framework suggests that children may like to read the whole book from which the extract is taken, it indicates no expectation that they should do so.

The preoccupation with accessibility and relevance irritates Anne Fine who sees them as "twin gods" which have done enormous damage to expectations. Many teachers reject a book on the basis of its cover - for example, if a girl is featured they think they will be unable to persuade a boy to read it and vice versa, never mind the quality of experience the child might gain out of reading the book. As she points out, the problem of boys' low achievement in reading will not be addressed by giving them football scores or comics to read. Helen Cresswell says: "It is not as if we are trying to force feed them with something horrible - we are trying to open up something absolutely wonderful."

The question of relevance is particularly pertinent, as there are so many classical works that children can enjoy if they are introduced to them. Because they are less immediately relevant to the modern child's life these books can be difficult to get into, but once a child is caught up in them the richness of the experience is immeasurable. Because of the recent centenary of his birth, C S Lewis's Narnia books have been getting a lot of attention. They contain a heavy underlay of Christian morality and a pre-war use of language and style. Yet children who read them continue to be enthralled.

It is all too easy to deny children this experience because we are afraid they can't handle it, or that self-esteem will suffer if they find it difficult. Yet the only way they will progress is if we show them what is possible and challenge them to go for it.

Wendy Earle is managing editor at Pictorial Charts Educational Trust. She will be chairing a session, `From Narnia to Byker Grove: Children's Literature and Television Today', at a conference, Culture Wars: Dumbing Down and Wishing Up, at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London, from 5 to 7 March; for a brochure and tickets, phone 0181-237 1111