How do you make children articulate? It's a long story ...

<preform>A new scheme that involves reading the classics to primary pupils aims to improve standards of spoken English among Britain's five-year-olds. Sarah Cassidy </b></i>and Richard Garner</b></i> report</preform>
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The Independent Online

For many modern parents, the ideal bedtime story usually involves something short (so they don't fall asleep while reading it), preferably with lots of pictures to keep the number of words to a minimum and with absolutely no necessity to "do voices". For children, of course, the ideal choice is something far more long-winded, in order to put off the moment of bedtime for as long as possible.

For many modern parents, the ideal bedtime story usually involves something short (so they don't fall asleep while reading it), preferably with lots of pictures to keep the number of words to a minimum and with absolutely no necessity to "do voices". For children, of course, the ideal choice is something far more long-winded, in order to put off the moment of bedtime for as long as possible.

So it will be interesting to see the results of an experiment being carried out in two British primary schools, in which the last lesson of every day is devoted to children being read a classic story such as The Wind In The Willows, Aesop's Fables or Arabian Nights. Each reading will be preceded by a one-minute recording of classical music.

The idea is not only to foster a love of books among today's primary school children but also raise standards in spoken English. And if the pilot scheme is successful, its advocates will press for it to be adopted nationwide. Some authors claim the mechanistic way in which reading has been taught in the Government's compulsory literacy hour fails to encourage children to enjoy reading on their own.

Educationalists have also expressed concern at the falling standards of speech among five-year-olds when they start school - saying that busy parents are to blame because they do not spend enough time talking and reading with them.

The Queen's English Society, which is heading the project, hopes that it will undo some of the damage caused by the decline in the numbers of children who are regularly read a bedtime story. Ian Bruton-Simmonds, of the society, said it would expose children to classic stories and "restore something to British education that was lost 60 years ago".

"Language comes mainly through listening in early childhood and most children will listen to a good story well told," Mr Bruton-Simmonds said. "The normal child has heard the classics for pleasure. In music and in literature the child is fortified. By the time a child is 10 it will know instinctively what is inferior art and what is good. It would not know the reason but it will know intuitively. It is by hearing a story read that you learn your love of language. That is how I learned - through my parents reading stories to me.

"Certainly this will also teach children to speak better. The Government has the idiotic idea of getting children to listen to themselves speak in secondary schools and comment on it. That's far too late. These gallumphing youngsters will be contemptuous and angry that they have been shown up in this way. So we are bringing it into primary schools. There, children are eager and apt learners."

Under the project, called Story-time, children will listen to a story being read during the last session of every school day. The class teacher will listen with the children and the pupils will not be questioned or asked to write anything after listening to the story. The session will be separate from the literacy hour.

Mr Bruton-Simmonds said: "The most important thing is that the reading takes place in the last session of the day. That means that the children are relaxed and the teachers are relaxed. They don't have to write anything, they just have to listen and enjoy the reading. We are sitting in Britain on the greatest cultural treasures in history but our poor benighted children are so poorly served at present."

The project is being trialled at Cottingley Village Primary School, near Bingley, West Yorkshire, and Gillshill Primary School in Hull. Susan Brumitt, the headteacher at Gillshill Primary, hopes that the project will boost pupils' reading scores in national tests as well as improving their spoken English. The 60 children who will take part are seven-year-olds and 11-year-olds who are due to sit national tests this summer.

Ms Brumitt said the readings would provide a radically different opportunity from that presented by the literacy hour. "I think that it is a fact in modern society that many parents work and children are involved in lots of out-of-school activities, which means that they no longer have that much opportunity to be exposed to the classics.

"As a school we try to make sure that children are exposed to lots of different experiences. This project will allow them to experience lots of different reading material and different styles of music. We do read classics with them but with the literacy strategy we tended to be reading excerpts of text to children, not complete stories."

Ms Brummit also believes that it will encourage the children to become more avid readers. "Ideally they will be desperate to read these books for themselves once they've heard them at school. I believe that it could have a good impact on children's reading habits as well as improving their spoken English."

According to its supporters, the scheme will put some of the enjoyment back into learning which leading children's authors say has been lost. Last year, five well-known authors - Philip Pullman, Bernard Ashley, Anne Fine, Jamila Gavin and Chris Powling - combined to argue in a series of essays that the introduction of the literacy hour was killing children's enjoyment of reading and writing.

In his essay, Ashley wrote: "Too much literacy teaching is directly related to the demands of the Sats [national curriculum tests for seven and 11-year-olds] at various stages - the curriculum is devised in order to be examined." The authors argued that the use of extracts from "texts" to teach everything from grammar to citizenship has made reading for pleasure a thing of the past.

And, while ministers would argue the introduction of the literacy hour has led to a dramatic increase in reading standards in schools, there was a general acknowledgement - particularly by Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education at the time, that learning should be "fun".

The literacy hour, ministers argue, may well have overcome problems such as those identified by David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, who warned that poor parenting was resulting in children being less prepared to start school than ever before.

Mr Bell said the behavioural and verbal skills of children starting school were at an all-time low, with some five-year-olds unable even to speak properly when they started school.

In another move, the Government's curriculum watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has endeavoured to overcome that by launching a scheme to teach primary school pupils to speak up for themselves and to allow others to have their say in the classroom.

However, the Queen's English Society - a strong supporter of the more formal teaching of grammar, spelling and punctuation - would argue that these two combined moves have not yet overcome the problem.

As a charity, it has been set up to promote and uphold the use of good English, and to encourage the enjoyment of the language. It believes its project will help to achieve that. Who knows? It might also lead to a demand from children to be read a story at bedtime again. Parents, you have been warned. Better get working on your Toad of Toad Hall impressions.

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