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E Jane Dickson: Showing films is no way to teach English


Let me be clear. I am no hobbit fancier. As a very young woman I made a habit of scanning the bookshelves of prospective boyfriends for Elvish tendencies. One glimpse of a well-thumbed Tolkien and I was out of there.

Now, as the mother of a teenage boy (a condition calculated to extinguish most youthful ideals), I would of course welcome his reading Tolkien – or, indeed, any novelist capable of full sentences – with near hysterical relief. Moreover, I'm ready to join the hairy legion protesting their outrage at the decision of a Hollywood production company which, having scooped up worldwide merchandising rights to The Hobbit, is bringing the full weight of corporate law against a Hampshire pub of the same name.

No matter that generations of schoolboys have imagined their own version of Tolkien's characters long before Martin Freeman pasted on his whiskers, Middle-earth Enterprises (there's a notion to set JRR spinning in his grave) is apparently concerned that the pub's amateur artwork and themed cocktails threaten The Hobbit's newly minted Hollywood identity. If it turns out to be a victory for corporate punctiliousness it will, I fear, be a nail in the coffin of literacy.

It's not as if another nail were needed. Yesterday's Ofsted report warned that literacy in UK schools is "flatlining", with one in five primary school-leavers failing to meet expected standards. Professional debate rumbles on about preferred methods of teaching the basic ABCs (phonics is the system du jour) but the bottom line is depressingly obvious. Not enough children are reading enough books.

I've lost count of the number of times I've asked my children, "What did you do in English today?" and been informed that not just days, but entire weeks of the curriculum are given over to watching film versions of literary classics. I don't so much mind that my son thinks Grendel's mother looks like Angelina Jolie (I dare say it would have been a while before he got round to Beowulf anyway) but I mind very much being told that teachers "don't have the time" to correct grammar and punctuation, and I'm not thrilled that the Shakespeare module on my daughter's Eng Lit GSCE course, while low on textual analysis, awards generous marks for her appreciation of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.

The film version of a literary classic can, more or less beautifully, convey a narrative, but it obviates the enlarging, imaginative experience of building up worlds from words. And the marvellous by-product of this enlarging experience is that just by dint of having words rather than pictures pass before their eyes, children learn about paragraphs and punctuation and all the other things that schools are apparently unwilling or unable to teach.

So here is my austerity tip for a cash-strapped, ideology-bound Department for Education. Just read the books and the "literacy" comes free.

Looks like Ed needs a bit of coaxing

I'm not sure what we're to make of the fact that Ed Miliband's wife calls him "Sweetie" at tender moments. To me, it's an endearment one might use to coax a dumbstruck child from behind his mother's legs, the kind of word you might use if you were essentially on his side, but increasingly irritated by his refusal to stand up for himself, for Pete's sake, and say something. There again, I'm sure Justine, left, means something quite different by it....