Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Importance of Story

          Okay, Christmas is over. Frivol is over. I want to return to the subject I was talking about before the mince-pies.

          Let’s be clear about one thing. Learning to read is hard.

          I remember a friend, a very educated woman, talking about a branch of her family that she obviously didn’t waste much love on. She’d heard that a distant twig of this branch had become a teacher. “It’s the first I knew that they could read!” she said.

          I’ve heard lots of variants on this joke. The subtext is: reading is easy, it’s kid’s stuff, something everyone can do. Therefore, if you can’t read, you’re stupid. I used to be a volunteer tutor at an Adult Literacy class, and I know how much this sneer hurts adults who find reading difficult.

          And it’s based on a fallacy. Reading is very, very hard.

          When someone immediately reads a sentence they’ve never seen before, they are, almost instantaneously, cracking a complex code, and converting shapes into sounds.
          A musician who sight-reads music is rightly admired, but someone who sight-reads a sentence is doing something only slightly less difficult.
          Because it’s a relatively common skill doesn’t make it easy. Driving averagely well is also a common skill, but no one assumes that’s it’s a doddle to learn or that it’s ’kids’stuff.’

          I’ve read that it takes about eight years to learn to read fluently. Because those of us who master the skill usually start very young, we tend not to remember its many difficulties.
          Those who don’t learn so quickly enter secondary school with a low reading age, and education for them becomes a worsening struggle. They’re made to feel failures, even if they are not told so outright. Hence the acute embarrassment often felt by my friends in the Adult Literacy Class.

          Our education system expects children to enter secondary school with a reading-age matching their chronological age, and, in secondary school you don’t ‘learn to read,’ you ‘read to learn.’

          If you can’t read, your formal education more or less comes to a halt. Schools become Aversion Therapy Units, putting children off education for life.

          I have always revelled in the knowledge that if something interests me – Neanderthals, say, or brochs or rievers – ‘there’ll be a book on it.’ If I hadn’t been one of the lucky ones who went through school with a high reading age, I probably wouldn’t even have heard of most of the things that interest me. And though I haven’t done much with my fluent reading, how can we ever know what potential is being lost in the thousands of children we fail to teach to read fluently? How many mute inglorious Miltons and potential Brunels are we throwing away? It’s a huge waste and a national shame.

          Before Christmas, I was blogging about some of the teaching methods being developed, based on Michael Halliday’s theories. These methods aim to bridge the skill-gap between children who start school with thousands of hours of experience with books and language, and those children who start with much less. (To read the earlier blogs on this subject, go here.)

          One way is for schools to provide the experience that might be lacking at home. Instead of being constantly tested and graded, children should be read to, and told stories. Poems should be learned, songs sung.

          I’ve heard adults say children ‘waste their time in school. They only listen to stories.’

          Hearing stories is not a waste of time. Stories have, for millennia taught communication. They enlarge vocabulary and range of expression. A child who learns how to structure a fairy-story will understand better, years later, how to structure an essay – and even, how to order their own thoughts to make better decisions.

          And all this story-telling and poetry listening should be as pleasurable as possible – because, if it isn’t, then the children switch off their brains, and you’re wasting your time and breath.

          Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that story-telling has been used, for millennia, as a teaching aid – to gain attention, to hold attention, and to be memorable. (The Good Samaritan, for instance, The Ant and the Grasshopper – even The Little Engine Who Could.)

          I quote the Ontario Ministery of Education (these methods have been successful in Canada.) Becoming a reader is a continuous process that begins with the development of oral language skills and leads, over time, to independent reading. Oral language – the ability to speak and listen – is a vital foundation for reading success.’ 
Illustration: Kai Nielsen
        And where that foundation hasn’t been provided at home, the school must provide it. Tell them stories! The Brothers Grimm, The Little Red Hen, The Gingerbread Man. That masterpiece of suspense, The Billy Goats Gruff.

          This is not ‘just play.’ This is not ‘wasting time.’ The frequent hearing and discussion of these old stories extends vocabulary, and demonstrates a whole spectrum of possible emotions and responses, from grief to gratitude, from rage to forgiveness, from fortitude and determination, to despair, to devotion. They teach pronunciation, rhythm, alliteration – and various modes of speech, from the everyday to the archaic and formal. Stories do all this, and more, and they do it pleasurably, so that children beg for more.

          Gradgrind was, as Dickens pointed out, wrong. Stories are not mere entertainment, they are not a waste of time.

          Story-telling is the seed-bed of eloquence and literacy.

          And here's Blott in 'Twelfth Night.'


Joan Lennon said...

Important stuff here - thank you for posting!

Penny Dolan said...

Agree, agree, agree - and Blott made me laugh!

It's also important for children to be read to/share stories with grown-ups even when "they can read". I recall a reading expert who said something like "children should hear the stories they can't yet read read aloud to them so that they can learn about the language (and therefore reading) they will meet in the future."

Susan Price said...

Thanks Joan! - and Penny, that's it exactly! That's all part of it.
It's a two way thing - the child is learning about context.
One thing I do remember about learning to read is being praised by a teacher for reading 'Once upon a time' with no hesitation. I did it because I saw 'upon a' which I could read, and immediately guessed that, since it was at the start of a story, it was 'Once upon a time...' If I hadn't had so many stories read to me, I wouldn't have been able to do that.
Being practiced in the patterns, the contexts of talking and story-telling helps in learning to read. It's not just 'A is for Apple, B is for Ball...'

Pauline Fisk said...

Susan, what you're saying here is so important, and you say it so clearly. As the mother of a now thirty-nine year old son who is dyslexic, I know how painful and distressing reading can be. My son's first finished book was Lord of the Rings. The power of story is what dragged him through - paragraph by paragraph and line by line it had him hooked.

Anonymous said...


Great explanation.

Context, context and context !! Tony Blair should have said that instead of education, education, education!

I've done some work over the past couple of years with a disabled adult man (58 years) who was a life long analphabetic and who believed he'd never read. In addition, his parents and carers also believed he'd never read. However, using a computer for practice and Halliday's functional grammar, he can now read simple texts and signs.

Think about all the classroom texts which could switch some readers off just by the title. The first real text for this learner was about someone having trouble with his boss when wanting to swap classes in a disabled workshop. "Yes!!!! He said. My boss is just like her! (The administrator in the story). From then on we had his attention.

It's so easy. Why will education policy makers not listen and plough funds in to addressing this real and indentifiable problem instead of more phonics programs and grading assessments? OK, I know, a learner needs phonic awareness, but that comes later once he/she sees the point of it.


Susan Price said...

What you said, coz!
And Pauline, what you said too! Before I took part in the adult literacy class, I had never really appreciated just how painful and inhibiting it is to be labelled 'illiterate'. The class members covered as wide a spectrum as you could imagine, and there were a variety of reasons for their lack of success in reading, but they all felt humiliated by it, even though they were bright, articulate and successful in other ways. I remember two of them telling me - and laughing over it together - about how many visits to the class, over weeks, it had taken before they found the nerve to go in. Another said she only came because she could slip in a back way, and never had to ask directions to 'the class for people who can't read' and never had to be seen going in by anyone else.
It made a deep impression on me because I couldn't - and can't - think of anything I would find it that hard to talk about.
I also had a friend - a very intelligent, articulate man - who was in the 'remedial class' in Secondary school. He was lucky to have a very good teacher who helped him a lot. His breakthrough came because he was mad about cycling, and the teacher found him a book about Tommy Armstrong, the great British cyclist who won the Tour De France. My friend so wanted to read that book that he fought literacy to a standstill, and ended by knowing it almost by heart!
Context, engagement and motivation!