Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reading with kids

The Guardian: Reading with kids

Today’s Guardian is selling itself on its twenty-four page pull-out ‘Reading with kids’. If you’re looking for good books to buy your young relatives, it offers plenty of advice: ‘The book doctor’ pages for 0-4s and 5-7s contain lots of occasions for what Francis Spufford in his The Child that Books Built once referred to as ‘excited delight’.  Where’s My Teddy, Mog the Forgetful Cat, Owl Babies, The Tiger Skin Rug, and many more remarkable stories proffer opportunities for many happy hours of reading, listening, talking and simply enjoying your children’s company.
Children’s laureate Julia Donaldson discusses the power of books to help children understand their own emotions and feelings. This particular aspect of reading is endorsed by Spufford when he describes the book as becoming ‘part of our self-understanding’ and as freeing us ‘from the limitations of having just one limited life with one point of view’. Sensibly, in my opinion, Donaldson decries the practice of reading to children solely for instrumental purposes. 
Towards the end of the supplement, there‘s a double-page spread on authors in performance. In more recent years, enticing a well-known author into schools has become very popular. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of listening to Michael Morpurgo and watching him hold the attention of dozens of children as he told one of his stories. The Guardian’s piece focuses on John Hegley and Anthony Browne as performers as well as writers. For my part, Anthony Browne is superb at combining image and text in playful and ironic ways which are appealing to children and adults alike.
Sadly, for parents hoping for some sensible advice on how to teach their children to read, this pull-out isn’t of any help at all. In fact, the most insubstantial of the pieces included is the first by Tim Dowling. Dowling believes reading to be ‘a solitary pursuit’ and, rather incongruously for this selection, confesses to having read to his children in a ‘bored monotone’ and to having skipped several pages at a time, sometimes rendering ‘the plot incomprehensible’. What a way to encourage one’s readership!
After admitting that he believes reading to one’s children is ‘oversold’ and that ‘he did what he had to do’, he claims that his three children learned to read at school on, you’ve guessed it, the Oxford Reading Tree series. Phonics is dismissed in a parodic sentence and he asserts breezily that, in learning to read, the children ‘found it easier still to commit whole chunks of text to memory’. Dowling is yet another example of people who seem to think that because they have a level of expertise in one area (in his case music journalism); they're experts on how we teach children to read.
Apart from recommending the Open University course 'Children’s literature', my own favourite children’s books, in no particular order of preference, are: Oliver Jeffries’ Incredible Shrinking Boy, Colin Thompson’s How to Live Forever, Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, and Maurice Sendak’s superb Where the Wild Things Are.

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