Wednesday, 25 November 2009
No, it wasn't a nightmare. It really happened. I was at school being trained for a scheme to support struggling readers in secondary school. I was keen, partly for selfish reasons. A writer can learn a lot from children who don't like to read.
The worksheet was our first exercise, designed to put us in the place of a child trying to decipher captions to a picture book. Presumably they wrote them in Dutch because it seemed an extraordinarily unlikely language that anyone would understand. Typical.
Anyway, while the other volunteers frowned over works like 'I' and 'books' I scanned the sheet briefly and worked out the two unfamiliar words - plaatjes or 'little plates' confused me at first, but then I realised it must mean illustrations. Then I sat and remembered how it felt arriving in Amsterdam, unable to understand one word of Dutch. How stressful it was to see words everywhere that I couldn't understand. How furious I'd feel in the supermarket, trying to decide whether magere melk or karnemelk was skimmed - and then arriving home to discover that a carton of karnemelk was in fact full of - yeeuch - buttermilk.
How I tried to learn by watching Bob de Bouwer but found it completely beyond me - not great for the self-esteem. The six months until I learned basic Dutch were nightmarish - I felt helpless, baffled and stupid every day. I never really learned to speak Dutch very well, but I could read and understand a lot. It transformed my stay in The Netherlands.
The trainers came from a borough-wide scheme working in secondary and primary schools in Haringey, north London. They were brimming with enthusiasm. The main thing, they told us, is to chat with the children about the books they read, make them feel interested and relaxed about reading. There would be no goals, no levels, nor targets. One to one attention from an adult might help these children discover a love of reading that had so far eluded them.
We talked about the worry that children might feel stigmatised by taking part in the scheme. One volunteer - herself not a native English speaker - pointed out that they were learning an important life lesson, that it was OK to ask for help. We discussed the books available and whether the children could take them out of a library.
I thought about all the things we do with our children to get them to read - reading to them, audio books, a book review blog, making them read a book before they see the film, discussing stories, characters, ideas. How much of that can I reproduce in a 25 minute session in a school library?
Author John Dougherty has written a polemic against the government's Literacy programme which seems designed to eliminate imagination and enjoyment of reading and writing from the classroom. I wonder how many of the struggling readers have been put off by targets and testing? At the International School in Amsterdam my daughter, aged 10 had a writer's notebook, which she was encouraged to fill with bits and bobs, pictures and poems and stories, somewhere to capture ideas and flex her imagination. I can't imagine such a thing in my son's SATs dominated classroom, where the emphasis is on inserting 'level five punctuation' into prose.
'Do you remember how you learned to read?' asked our trainers. I didn't, but I do remember the horribly dull reading scheme that we had to work through in infant school. The Wide Range Readers were full of short boring snippets of prose, no stories, no characters. I taught myself to speed read and galloped through them, proud to be the first in my class to graduate onto my own choice of book.
I'd hoped that things might have changed in forty years. I fear they may have got worse.