Learning by heart from famous works was ranked as very low priority in a survey published today by the Society of Women Writers and Journalists. Just 3 out of 10 said it was important.
The 100-year-old society, whose members include Maeve Binchy, Nina Bawden and Lady Longford, has entered the debate on how children should be taught to read. Its survey asked members to rank 10 statements about literacy in order of importance.
Nine out of ten said parents should read to pre-school children as often as possible, and a similar proportion added that spelling and punctuation should be made a priority throughout school life.
Standard English grammar was an essential foundation for true creative writing, according to 86 per cent of the respondents. Teachers' skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing should also be improved, most of them said, and children should learn to speak correct English whatever their dialect.
Both the traditionalist 'phonics' method of sounding out words while learning to read, and the modern 'real books' approach which concentrates on letting children enjoy stories and absorb grammar and spelling at their own pace, featured low on their lists of priorities.
However, the statement that all children should learn by heart from a canon of great literature roused strong feelings. Some crossed out the statement to express their disapproval, and one wrote on it 'let them read trash if they want to'. A quarter said engendering a love of reading in children was more important than forcing them to learn great works.
To improve literacy, children should be read to at home, spelling and punctuation should be emphasised, and standard English should be spoken and written at school. Dr Joyce Morris, a member of the society's council and a leading educational researcher, who conducted the survey, said: 'Creative writers don't go along with the notion that standard English grammar is a handicap. It is one of the foremost things that children should learn.'
Speaking at a literacy seminar organised by the society in London yesterday, John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, said parents should read to their children for half an hour each day. 'Teachers cannot succeed without the support of parents. Parents must help teachers and develop the reading habit in their children before they start school,' he said.
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