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Stalking its prey

The other day, I happened upon the image shown here that had appeared in a Michael Rosen blog post and that was being commented upon on social media. I confess that I can’t remember if I saw it on Twitter or on Facebook; whichever, I tried to find the conversation again and ended up spending loads of time looking with no success. So I gave up. However, I do recall that all the comments made were along the same lines: it’s ridiculous; it’s insulting to our children; I was never made to do stuff like this; why don’t children read more; children should be made to read more etc etc.

I only glanced at this post in passing and didn’t have any intention to get involved in the debate. But when, two days later, I was still thinking about it in any idle moment, I realised that I needed to address some of the issues it raised with me. There are quite a few, and absolutely none are intended to engage in an argument, to contradict any of those who commented or to be the definitive answer. They’re just things that occurred to me that I wanted to share.

Firstly, I teach English at secondary school level; I’m not a primary teacher. We don’t tend to use worksheets like this, but I can absolutely understand why primary schools do. The issue I would have with this particular sheet is not the tasks that the children are being asked to complete, but the line that says: Use these steps to improve the sentences below. And within that line, the only word I object to is the verb ‘improve’. The assumption that adding clauses and conjunctions and noun phrases will ‘improve’ the existing sentences is utterly subjective and something that’s impossible to prove. If the verb used was ‘change’, I think it would be completely fine. Teaching children the component parts of sentences, and the ways in which you can add or move clauses around to enhance or change meaning, is an essential part of the job of teaching them to write. Encouraging them to experiment with language and sentence structure and vocabulary is brilliant. It’s what they need to do.

To all the people who say ‘I was never taught this and I’ve done OK’ I want to reply, ‘Well done you but it’s not like that for everyone!’ I don’t remember being taught any of this either. Writing well is something I’ve always been able to do; I had an intrinsic understanding of how language works and how to manipulate it the way I wanted to. But my experience is not the point. Just like any other skill, there are some people who seem to get it innately and all the rest - the vast majority - who need to be taught. We all know this is the case with physics or Spanish or even art. To pretend that that it is not the case with English is completely ridiculous.

Personally, as a secondary school teacher, I’m really pleased if children are being introduced to this stuff in primary school. It means that, one day, I might be able to shelve my lessons on subordinate clauses and how to use a semi-colon. That would leave me free to concentrate on all the wonderful texts we study in secondary school, all the opportunities to engage in creative writing and immerse ourselves in the wonderful world of English.

Secondly, I think it’s really important to understand just what exactly it is that primary school teachers are expected to do. Unlike secondary teachers, they are not specialists - they have to teach English, maths, science, history, geography, art and often PE and music as well. Could you do that? Any of you who want to toss this worksheet in the bin? I couldn’t; that’s why I went into secondary. I only ever have to teach the subject that I know really well and am entirely comfortable and confident with. I could not teach children to build electrical circuit boards or solve fractions or paint water colours or play the ukelele. Even in the secondary school world, we are so overloaded with planning, marking, teaching, data, meetings, duties and extracurricular activities that, frankly, if anyone resorts to a worksheet to make their life easier, who can blame them. I work at least ten or eleven hours a day and I’m sure primary teachers do the same. So cut the teachers a bit of slack, please.

Thirdly, I need to address this issue of ‘children should be reading books.’ Yes, of course they should. So do you have the magic solution for how to do this? If you do, you could make yourself very, very rich. I was at school more years ago than I care to dwell on but suffice to say, some people I knew read a lot and some people read absolutely nothing at all other than what they were compelled to. Even then, the proudest boast of many of the pupils in my school year, on walking into our English Literature ‘O’ Level (closed book in those days, as they are again now) was, ‘I haven’t even read the book yet.’ This was said with a laugh and a jeer as if only losers actually read the set text before being examined on it. This was long before the days of the internet, mobile phones, computer games of any sort or any diversion whatsoever except the television. There was nothing particularly compelling to take the attention away from the wholesome influence of books, yet many, many, many young people didn’t read. Just like today, many young people don’t read. It was ever thus.

I have three daughters. The house is full of books, stuffed from top to bottom. Books are regularly given and received as presents to treasure. Outings to the bookshop are a treat to be relished. I write books! We have no wii, playstation, nintendo or x-box, although we do have an ipad and computers. I read non-stop, including often whilst cooking or cleaning my teeth. Everyone in my family reads; my children will never see me, my sisters or my mum without a book by their side. Yet though the oldest and the youngest one read avidly, the middle one does not. She says books are boring, they just go on and on before they get to the interesting bit and she doesn’t enjoy reading. I’ve tried everything to encourage her, including bribery, telling her she would get a higher allowance if she read at least two books at month. She said she didn’t want the money.

We all want young people, especially teenagers, to read more. But you simply can’t force them to do it in their spare time if they don’t want to. And when there are so many other sources of entertainment available to them, often seeming much more engaging than words on a page, it is often a case of fighting a losing battle.

However, having said all that, I really would like people to appreciate the huge efforts schools go to to encourage reading. Every secondary school I know of in London has a fantastic library stocked with fabulous books, library lessons embedded in the curriculum and a range of stimulating texts being studied in class which all pupils will read either alone or as part of shared reading. My school has all of these, plus student book clubs and reading groups. And whilst there are many teenagers who don’t read, there are also a huge number who do. We do all we can to turn our young people into readers but some will never take to it in the way that many of us would like. At least we have given them the tools that will enable them to enjoy reading if they change their minds as they grow older, which many do. I have sent young men from the inner city, who are able to quote widely from the poems of Robert Browning, into car spraying apprenticeships and that’s good enough for me. They’ve experienced the best of English literature and they know it’s there if they want it.

Finally, it’s really important to raise the question here of what exactly education is for. I would like to see education, and certainly my job as an English teacher, as providing the students with the ability to read and decode texts, to understand how meaning can be manipulated by clever use of language, to have wide and varied vocabularies that allow them to express themselves precisely and succinctly. To develop in them an appreciation of the writer’s craft and expose them to some of the classics of English literature, to open doors to them to worlds past, present and future that will expand their own experience of existence. To enable them to write clearly and coherently, to form an argument, to develop a story and, above all, to love our wonderful language, its culture, heritage and literature.

But, for most students, education is about passing their exams so that they can get a job, go to university, get an apprenticeship etc etc. That is what education has been made to become. It’s a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Of course good schools try to counter that as much as possible, thinking carefully about what will be studied before the crucial GCSE years so it isn’t all about being in an exam factory. But the reality is that our children and young people need to get their grades and they know it. The exam criteria for the writing section of the English Language GCSE specifically calls for the use of ‘varied sentence structures’ and I know from experience that if you don’t teach students to use complex sentences, the vast majority of them won’t. They’ll stick to simple and compound sentences and the mark scheme will judge them harshly for it. So the much maligned ‘uplevelling sentences’ worksheets has a really important purpose.

I’m currently running after school sessions for Year 10s who would like to take part in the BBC Young Writers Award. They have to write a short story of 1000 words or less. At the first session, eleven students attended - ten girls and one boy - all from my own year 10 class. So I guess I didn’t do a great job in selling it to the rest of the year group! But I also know a very disaffected young man from another class who writes really well. He’s not behaving too well right now and keeps getting into trouble. I suggested to him that he join the group, trying to persuade him with the argument that he has a talent and should use it. I genuinely want him to take part but I was also thinking that perhaps being engaged in something positive might influence him in all areas. He agreed, but it wasn’t only the joy of exercising his creative muscles, the unaccustomed praise, or the potential glory of winning a competition that sold him on the idea. It was because I also told him that just taking part and entering would enable him to put it down in the ‘extra-curricular’ section of his CV or sixth form college application - which he knew would be extremely empty otherwise.

Does it matter what reasons a young person has for participating in writing? I don’t believe so. But I do think we need to move away from a romantic ideal of a book reading past that has sadly died, and take a more pragmatic approach. Let’s look on those who are reading as a bonus rather than on those who don’t as failures. It will make us all a lot happier and, let’s face it, we’ve got enough to worry about in this country right now.

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