Turning Frank On: Let’s move the “reading for pleasure” debate beyond baiting the middle men and women.

Read Frank Cottrell Boyce's critique of the teaching of reading in UK schools. Then infer what you like from my use of this image.
Read Frank Cottrell Boyce’s critique of the teaching of reading in UK schools. Then infer what you like from my use of this image.

In an interview in yesterday’s Guardian, the award-winning children’s writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce criticised the practice of closely analysing books in schools. His main points (and you can read the article here: http://gu.com/p/42g7h) are that the reading experience is polluted by plodding, stop-start analyses, littered with jargonistic, “child-friendly” terms (such as “wow-words” and “connectives”) that ultimately stultify any enjoyment of the act of reading.

He elevates reading for pleasure to a hallowed, yogic state of immersion in the thoughts of others (a view with which I entirely agree). However, I take issue with how he communicates his displeasure and how his critique doesn’t appear to offer any solution beyond the usual moaning about how reading should be pleasurable.

No one disagrees with the statement: reading should be pleasurable. It is up there with “every child matters” or “no child left behind” in terms of both its rhetorical power and its spurious emptiness. But to criticise a newly qualified teacher in her good faith application of what is recommended (within the grand compromise of research-based best practice and the harsh economic reality of 30 children in a room) is not helpful.

Were he to conclude that it is apathy, a lack of awareness and interest in the specifics of how children are taught to read, that allows such a Brave New World scenario to transpire, we would have a more solid foundation upon which to build the debate. Most parents don’t have the time to think deeply about how reading is taught. They vote for parties that beat the drum about the basics of literacy, that berate schools for not meeting standards (What’s behind these standards? Are they connected in any way to reading for pleasure? Do we measure the pleasure?). As a result, schools are put under pressure to quickly move the children through a set of objectives. It is possible for extremely talented and committed teachers to preserve the pleasure of reading in such a pressurised environment. But such skill is not universal and, quite possibly, not within the reach of a newly qualified teacher such as the woman Frank quotes in his critique.

So, what to do? Well, we could prioritise the objective that children read for pleasure. We could, as I’ve enjoyed writing, “measure the pleasure”. But, Frank, I suspect that would give you even more cause for concern. Reading between your lines, I can see that you appreciate that reading is a private act, and any external analysis or measurement of it will change its nature, turn it from an intrinsic pleasure into a hoop-jumping routine.

So, here’s what we do, Frank. Let’s agree that the current situation is a bit creepy (a la Brave New World) and that, ultimately, it does not privilege reading for pleasure as a outcome. But let’s also agree not to bait newly qualified teachers (she’s not going to want to go on a date with you after that, is she?*). Let’s also agree to find the root cause of this creepy compromise. My suspicion is that we have abdicated responsibility for reading to other people, pure and simple. We have allowed politicians to apply an accounting procedure to education that gives them soundbites and drums to beat. It is that accounting procedure that forces the newly qualified teacher to abbreviate the learning experience to jargonistic terms that for you are such a turn-off. If we can grow up as an electorate, and take greater interest in and responsibility for the details of our children’s learning, perhaps we can come up with a learning experience, Frank, that turns you on.

*This is a reference to the article, in which Frank is quoted describing how a young, female NQT uses terms such as “wow-words” and “connectives” to analyse the story he has read to the class. After quoting her words, he goes on to imagine how dull it would be to go on a date with her, were she to apply this jargonistic language to the dating process. This point in the article is, I think, uncharitable to the NQT as he is effectively inviting the reader of the article to share in his objectification and ridicule of her. It is an extremely belittling analogy to publish in a national paper. Especially if, as is likely, the NQT may well recognise herself in this article. If it were a male NQT, what analogy would Frank have chosen? He makes a valid point, but in doing so, alienates people whom he could have won more readily to his cause.

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