Writers Must Stand Up for the Children

All over the world there is mounting concern among educators and parents that kids are not showing enough interest in reading for pleasure, both in and out of school. In many cases they’re not able to achieve the expected standard of reading by age 11, or even older.  

British author and Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen who is also a respected children’s-literature advocate and a radio host, recently lambasted the UK education authorities for the way literature is being taught to primary-school children in the UK.

Addressing a literary conference in London, he said it was “absurd and pathetic” that reading assignments in schools now consist of two paragraphs of a story followed by comprehension questions. He said he became incensed when his daughter brought home a worksheet from school which comprised of just a short extract of the Greek classic “Perseus and the Gorgon,” followed by twenty comprehension questions.

“That was the homework; that’s what they did on myths that term. How crazy and absurd and poverty-stricken and pathetic is that? It had nothing to do with the story,” he said. He complained that in many schools, students are not reading whole books. “They are reading torn-up books that they call worksheets — a little extract which then asks children questions about facts on the worksheet,” he added.

Schools in the US have faced similar criticisms as teachers come under increasing pressure to address literacy problems in the country’s middle and high schools. 

Now a group of poets, authors and illustrators in Britain have joined in calling on teachers and education officials in the UK to encourage children to read whole books instead of excerpts, and declared their opposition to SAT tests which perpetuate the practice. In a statement issued Tuesday (April 27) the group calling itself ‘Authors Against SATs’ said:   

We are poets, authors and illustrators opposed to the SAT tests. Our campaign was founded in 1993. We believe that children’s understanding, empathy, imagination and creativity are developed best by reading whole books, not by doing comprehension exercises on short excerpts and not from ticking boxes or giving one word answers. It is our view that reading for pleasure is being squeezed by the relentless pressure of testing and we are particularly concerned that the SATs and the preparation for them are creating an atmosphere of anxiety around the reading of literature. Resources now being channeled into testing could and should be redirected towards libraries, the training of librarians and book provision.”

The statement was endorsed by some 96 writers and illustrators. What’s more, their dissatisfaction with SATs is shared by none other than the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT). Both the NAHT and the NUT have announced plans to boycott next month’s SATs tests for primary school pupils in England.

Both unions have deemed the national curriculum tests (SATS) damaging to children’s education. Following a successful ballot of members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), executives from both unions decided to boycott this year’s tests.

The unions say that in their current form, the tests disrupt the learning process for children in year six, and are “misused to compile meaningless league tables which only serve to “humiliate and demean children, their teachers and their communities”.     

Authors Against SATs have raised an intriguing issue worthy of debate. They said they believe that in British schools, “reading for pleasure is being squeezed by the relentless pressure of testing,” adding that they are “particularly concerned that the SATs and the preparation for them are creating an atmosphere of anxiety around the reading of literature.”  

The thought that kids are getting turned off books in their formative years (whether through non-user-friendly curriculums or other societal factors) is one that writers the world over would do well to ponder – and not just authors of children’s books. I say this not just because it has major implications for their future earning potential, but also because statistical and anecdotal evidence compiled in both the developed and developing world make it hard to dismiss growing concerns about poor literacy standards among adolescents and teens as mere presumptions. For example, consider the following: (information source: http://www.readfaster.com/education_stats.asp

USA

44% of American 4th grade students cannot read fluently, even when they read grade-level stories aloud under supportive testing conditions. (National Assessment of Educational Progress).  

In a class of 20 students, few if any teachers can find even 5 minutes of time in a day to devote to reading with each student. (The National Centre for Education Statistics, NCES Fast Facts, Family Reading).

In the inner cities and poor rural areas of America, 68% of low income fourth graders cannot read at a basic level. (Improving Education for Every Child by Nina S. Rees, Asst. Deputy Secretary at the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) at the U.S. Department of Education).

So strong is the link between literacy and being a useful member of society that some states use grade-level reading statistics as a factor in projecting future prison construction. (Bob Chase, president, National Education Association).

Students who reported having all four types of reading materials (books, magazines, newspapers, encyclopaedias) in their home scored, on average, higher than those who reported having fewer reading materials. (The Nation’s Report Card: Fourth-Grade Reading 2000, April 2001, The National Center for Education Statistics).  

UK

The select committee report, “Teaching Children to Read” found that 17% of 11-year-olds in England do not reach the required standard for their age.

63% of white working class boys and 55% of black Caribbean boys aged 14 has a reading age of seven or less. (Wasted – The Betrayal of White Working Class and Black Caribbean Boys by Harriet Sergeant).

A recent study of literacy among pupils in Scotland found that one in five Scottish children leave primary school without being fully literate.  The report was commissioned by Scottish Labour and conducted by a group of experts, including bestselling novelist, Ian Rankin and Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. It recommended a new formal exam be set to test reading and writing skills at the end of their third year of secondary school

Harriet Sergeant, journalist and author of ‘Wasted – The Betrayal of White Working Class and Black Caribbean Boys published by the Centre for Policy Studies, spent a year investigating education in British schools. She interviewed Ofsted inspectors, teachers, pupils and parents. She said she was trying to investigate why so many black Caribbean and white working class boys fail to make the transition to a successful adult life

Over and over again in the schools I visited, I saw educational ideology and government initiative take precedence over doing what schools should be doing – teaching our children,” said Sergeant. She added, “One Ofsted inspector I interviewed complained she spent more time looking in children’s lunchboxes than checking if they could read or write. When she asked her lead inspector if they shouldn’t be investigating whether the school was using synthetic phonics to good effect, he said, “We haven’t got time for that.”

South Africa

A report presented by the education management body Higher Education South Africa (HESA) to a portfolio committee on higher education last year, disclosed that most of South Africa’s first-year university students cannot read, write and comprehend.

The Caribbean

In many islands of the Anglophone Caribbean official literacy estimates for the overall population are cited as being over 90%.

But interestingly, Jamaican-born education consultant and UWI professor, Dr Zellynne Jennings-Craig who headed a team to research adult literacy in Guyana in 1995 felt that those government-provided figures ought to be taken with a grain of salt. In an interview with the Guyanese news website Spotlight on Issues, she said that the literacy figures given for Caribbean countries tend to be “high and inaccurate” because the international data bases were not using accurate and appropriate techniques for their data collection. She said the figures given by the various international bodies usually differ and cited this as an indication of their unreliability. Since then, she has often highlighted the importance of developing systematic means to measure literacy levels as is done in North America, Europe and the UK.  

Dr Jules

More recently, a concept paper prepared by the Registrar of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) Dr Didacus Jules, proposing the “Development of a CARICOM Strategic Plan for Primary and Secondary Education Services in the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME),” commented on the availability of education statistics in the various member states.

“Adequate analysis of the situation in education is hamstrung by the absence of reliable empirical data and up to date statistics on which informed decisions can be made.” The report added, “ Several initiatives have been undertaken to improve this situation but ultimately any regional data and statistical system must rely on the commitment and accuracy of participating Ministries to deliver their components.”

All the same, last year the Guyana Review reported that the Guyana Ministry of Education had conceded that reading had become a “diminishing pursuit among school-aged children,” and reading programmes that had been implemented in some schools did not appear to have remedied the problem.

Last year in Jamaica it was reported that as many as a quarter of the students leaving primary schools are illiterate or reading below their grade level.

Similar literacy problems exist in other parts of the region, including the smaller OECS states. Furthermore, officials of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) have conceded that they’ve seen signs that reading is becoming less popular among Caribbean children.

In the earlier-cited proposed “CARICOM Strategic Plan for Primary and Secondary Education in the CSME,” it was noted that World Bank estimates show that approximately 25-to 30% of primary school students in the Anglophone Caribbean “do not acquire the basic cognitive skills to benefit from education at that level.”

The Anglophone Caribbean accounts for 30.78% of the region’s total school age population

The report also cited the number of dropouts at the secondary level as the most serious concern, notwithstanding great progress had been made in the last 5 years on access to secondary education.  

Access to early childhood education and the quality of its provision, and low levels of school achievement were other areas of concern.

On the bright side, as far as reading in schools in concerned, the CXC of late has been working more closely with teachers and suggesting reading lists for secondary school students, which are then appended to the English syllabus. The suggested school texts include novels, plays and poetry.  Moreover, CXC Registrar, Dr Jules has said that the CXC is “pushing hard to ensure that regional publishers (who are ethically straight!) are facilitated in that arena while working with foreign publishers to add value that cannot currently be obtained within the region.”  

The push to get Caribbean kids reading is also getting a fillip with the launch of publishing initiatives like the Macmillan Island Fiction Series for 12 to 15 year olds and the Sand Pebbles Pleasure Series for children by Carlong Publishers.

Joanne Johnson reading to a class

The cause is also being championed by Caribbean children’s writers and bloggers like the Island Fiction editor, Joanne Johnson, Summer Edward through her blog http://summeredward.blogspot.com/  and Jamaicans Dianne Browne http://dianebrowneblog.blogspot.com/   and Helen Williams http://marogkingdom.blogspot.com/ The vibrant advocacy of groups like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators-Caribbean South (SCBWI) is also helpful.  

Which brings me back to Authors Against SATs. In standing up for the children, they also seem to be saying that, as writers, they have a stake in promoting literacy and they are not prepared to be left out of the discourse.

Will we see more Caribbean authors and poets making their voices heard and joining hands with organizations like the SCBWI, the media and progressive elements within national Education Ministries and agencies in holding the governments of the region accountable for the proper schooling of our children?  

That remains to be seen.

Advertisements

6 responses to “Writers Must Stand Up for the Children

  1. As a writer and editor of children’s books linked to Jamaican publishers, my experience is that local fiction for children gets very little support from the public, teachers, the Min of Education and the booksellers – not enough to encourage more books being published. There are many problems and too few solutions.

  2. Pingback: Global Voices in English » St. Lucia: Getting Kids to Read·

  3. Love to read your articles
    Interesting topics, well researched and timely presented
    Big fan here

  4. SAT’s, don’t me started. Teaching for the test “that can’t be studied for.” Private prep classes for the same. Pathetic. Most kids naturally love to read. It gets drummed out of them, like enthusiasm in general, during the educational process.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s