Want to improve writing standards? Let them read books!

You wouldn’t expect a child to make a movie if they had never watched TV or visited the cinema. You’d never expect a child to make something if they’d never seen the tools being used or had never encountered the raw materials before, so why, oh why do we expect children to be able to write when they don’t read and aren’t encouraged to by the primary Literacy Strategy?

In the last ten years or so, the Literacy Strategy, which has supposedly been raising literacy standards, has failed dismally. Standards rose slightly at the beginning, but you would expect that as teachers taught to the test. After that, nothing happened. Why? Because reading was not part of the Literacy Strategy.

Endless comprehension of selected texts – yes, but reading – no. A whole generation of primary teachers have been brought up with this nonsense. Surely they must be beginning to suspect that they were sold a pup?

A whole generation of children have been brought up not reading books for pleasure. Their teachers were not taught about children’s books or how to read them to class. At one Literacy Coordinator’s conference I went to, that was all about “talking”, I actually heard two teachers in conversation at my lunch table, discussing what an amazing idea it was to read stories aloud to children in class. They seemed baffled about where and when in the busy curriculum they would be able to fit in such a new concept and how they would do it!

Do you know, I’ve been to some schools where they ask me if I have any tips to help the children improve their writing. I looked around their bare, empty classrooms, where not one book was on display, and suggested they get the children to read books. They’d honestly not thought of that. If you don’t celebrate books and tell stories, how are children ever going to know about them and how are they ever going to know that they are important, if teachers aren’t bothered? Some teachers don’t read for pleasure themselves and are certainly unaware of the latest trends and bestsellers in children’s literature.

Writing is a difficult skill but we seem to think that if we throw enough phonemes and pronouns at it, somehow children will learn to write amazing, imaginative stories.

Writing comes from three sources: Firstly experience – how can children write about stuff if they haven’t experienced anything in their lives, if risk assessments stop museum visits and weekends away? Secondly, writing comes from seeing it being done, and that means reading books – whole books- long books with beginnings and middles and satisfying ends, that grip the child’s imagination, making them laugh and cry and want to seek out more – to find out what lies over the horizon. And thirdly, there is grammar and style. This can and should be taught, Grammar is important, it’s how we make sense of writing, but it is not how we write. Grammar is merely a tool, Experience and reading are the raw materials.

I wrote a story for Barrington Stoke, who publish for Dyslexics. The manuscript of Craig Mnure was sent out to a large test group and came back covered with suggestions for making the text easier to read. Interestingly, the further into the book, the fewer the comments – this was because the children “got my voice” after a while. The voice takes over from the difficulties of reading. The voice carries the story along, gripping the reader who, only caring about the story, is not aware that they are also working on their reading skills. Who cares about comprehension and split infinitives – they want to know what happens. The skill comes as a by-product of the enjoyment. Yes, learning really can be fun – just read a good book!

When you read and engage with a book, you see the writing being done, like an apprentice at his master’s elbow, learning the skills of the trade. You see how the writer puts the words and ideas together, and by reading the whole story, by a process of osmosis, the writing skills improve and the imagination begins to grow as writers present new horizons for children to aim for.

Maybe reading for pleasure sounds like too much fun? It can’t be educational if you are having fun! Surely literacy must have great dollops of misery to make it stick?

We take reading for granted these days. It’s something that is done to you and your supposed to be able to do it by the end of year six, when reading finishes and secondary education begins.
But reading is an incredibly complex skill and like all skills, it needs to be worked on to improve, and it needs to be kept up to maintain the skill level you are at. You will never improve your writing unless you read and see how it is done by others. You need to read good and bad writing to become a discerning reader and competent writer.

I visit many primary schools. There is something about the schools that put a great emphasis on reading – an atmosphere the moment you walk over the threshold. They tend to be run by old-fashioned head teachers, (not managers, but teachers), who tell me that they have to explain the idea of reading for pleasure to new, young teachers and let them know that reading for pleasure is their school’s priority. It doesn’t matter where the school is or what kind of catchment area it has, the emphasis on reading infuses the school, the curriculum and the results with excitement, success and achievement.

Children who are proficient readers become self-starters, confident in their ability to read, research and find out on their own.

It is not a teacher’s job to cram stuff into children. Teacher’s are there to open children’s eyes and raise their sights, to facilitate the quest for knowledge, to create young people who can stand on their own two legs and and find things out for themselves. This is achieved by teaching the one and only really necessary skill – READING – every other school discipline comes seconadary to reading, most are unteachable without the ability to read.

If you want to raise your children’s writing standards, let them read books – hundreds of them. Blow the school budget, build a library, make it the heart of the school, have a branch library in every class room.

Put books and reading for pleasure first, stand back and watch your children grow and blossom like fireworks going off. I’ve seen it happen in many schools, then the head leaves and the grey miasma of Literacy descends once again as the vision leaves the building.

Want to improve your children’s writing standards? Let them read books!