Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Reading Lessons

 I'm in a classroom at my daughter's school and the teacher is handing out a worksheet. She pauses. 'Does anyone read Dutch?' she asks. And I raise my hand. 
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.


  1. I do a similar bit of volunteering, but at a junior school. Today, my two readers were reading a page each from the same book. As one read, the other mimed the actions (it was about surfing). We were so loud that the teacher in a nearby classroom came and closed the door on us. My two readers couldn't stop giggling. Result.

  2. I'm glad to see that I could have got the right milk, had it been me.

  3. Ik leer altijd iets wanneer ik hier kom. Ik genoot van dit.

  4. Don't tell me you like buttermilk! Mind you, the Dutch grow very tall on it.

    Bedankt Visje.

  5. Things had improved since you were at school, Keren, but then they deteriorated again. I used to be a primary school teacher until the arrival of SATs tests, Ofsted inspections and a rigid National Curriculum. I could no longer plan in response to the interests of the children. If someone had brought in an old bird's nest we talked about it, we wrote about it, we drew pictures of it. We were all motivated. The National Curriculum demotivated both me and the children. I left teaching. The children weren't so fortunate.

  6. A great description of struggling with language, Keren. I can only imagine how overwhelming moving to the Netherlands must have been.

    Have you read The Arrival by by Shaun Tan?
    It's a graphic novel that I love, captures the frightening immigrant experience very well.

    And I must say... I make great buttermilk pancakes and can NEVER find buttermilk in this country! =)

  7. I live in Germany and for the first two years I made absolutely no effort to learn the lingo. I worked for the British Army and my working environment, my social life and even the media I watched and read were all in English.
    However, I then moved to a different job where the management were British officers and the work force German. There was no English to be found outside of the mess so I had to buckle down and learn German... and it changed my life.
    Don't ask me why I wrote that, I just felt I had to share it.

    On a separate note, we learnt to read English by the bore-them-into-submission method. However we learnt to read Welsh with songs and plays. I actually used to enjoy Welsh lessons.
    So now you know, lol.

  8. Songs are the way to learn a language I think. I could learn anything if I can sing it. Difficult to stop singing though at the greengrocer's.

  9. I can't recall how I learnt to read, but apparently I did it very easily. I'm very glad that I've always enjoyed reading, as my mother has had to deal for many years with those who don't or can't read. Can't understand why people wouldn't want to read.

  10. I have to lecture my class' most obsessive readers for not writing 5 comments and getting signatures from adults 3 times a week. They read when I'm trying to teach them other things - I have to lecture them about how they record what they read.
    I bet that will help increase their fluency, skill and love of reading.

  11. I agree withe the songs for learning the language - it somehow seems to be easier to memorise - no idea why though.

    Kate xx

  12. In a year following redundancy I took up guided reading in my local Junior School. I adopted the same approach that I did with my kids at home which was to avoid focussing on reading the characters and focus on the story being told, guessing words that they struggled with. The kids were amazingly receptive and it seemed to raise their confidence. I equate this approach to the fact that as adults we pay very little attention to characters on a page when we read.