Michael Morpurgo on child literacy

Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo examines the lamentable standard of literacy among children

We are in a muddle about literacy. We worry endlessly that children in Britain are not becoming readers. Report after report comes out, revealing that hundreds of thousands of our children do not read well enough, that we are slipping further and further behind in child literacy levels when compared with other countries. Interesting that Finland finds itself at the top of a recent child happiness table as well as child literacy levels. More of Finland and happiness later.

It is understandable that we are anxious – we have reason to be – but anxiety seems to have befuddled our thinking.  There is we much we can agree on. Government, educators, parents, we all understand how vitally important reading is for a child’s inner development. We know it can be a source of intense enjoyment. We know that through reading we can come to a greater knowledge and understanding of the world about us, that we learn to empathise, and discover we are not alone, that we belong, that inside a book we can escape, we can be someone else, and know ourselves a little better, that every book is a new journey, emotionally, intellectually, that we are what we read every bit as much as we are what we eat, and that reading exercises the mind, and the mind needs exercise just as surely as the body does. No one then doubts the value of reading, of developing a love of literature in a child’s life.

Yet it would seem that a degree of illiteracy still runs deep in this country, is even endemic perhaps. This is not a new phenomenon. There is and always has been, I believe, a disassociation between many of us and our literature.

Thomas Hardy can help us here.  He wrote in The Woodlanders of the
‘old association’ that a countryman feels with  the landscape around him,  with the oak tree in the meadow recently struck by lightning, with the river in flood, with the hedge along the lane. It is an old association born of familiar stories. He knows that it was his grandfather who planted that oak  tree a hundred years before, that Joe Marley drowned in the river whilst fishing, that his brother laid the hedge the winter before because the sheep kept breaking through. He’s a part of this landscape. He understands it. He knows it through memory stories, through told stories, not written down, not taught, but simply passed on.

I’m thinking that it is perhaps education itself that hijacked our stories a long while ago. Ironically, it may be responsible both for the great blossoming of our literature, for enriching the lives of so many through books; and yet at the same time it might also be responsible for blighting young lives, leaving so many with the impression that literature is not for them, but the preserve of a certain educated élite. As a consequence, much of our society has become separated from its own stories. This alienation can happen all too easily. Let me tell you a story.

There was once a boy brought up with books all around him. There were no walls in the house, just books it seemed. At bedtime his mother would sit
on the bed and read to him, Masefield, Kipling, Lear, De la Mare, Shakespeare, and the boy loved it because his mother loved it – he could hear it in her voice, in her laugh, in the tears in her eyes. He loved the fun, shared the sadness. He loved the magic of every story, of every poem. He loved the music in the words. He never wanted story time to end.

Then ‘unwillingly to school’ he went, trudging the leafy pavements through  pea-souper London smogs. From then on the stories were not magical, and they weren’t musical either. Words were to be properly spelled, properly punctuated, with neat handwriting, no inky blotches. They were not story words any more, but nouns and pronouns and verbs. Later they were used for dictation and comprehension, and all was tested and marked. A multitude of red crosses and slashes covered his exercise books, like bloody cuts. A fear of words, a fear of failure, banished all the fun, all the magic.  Every day more words died, until the evening this boy was taken to see Paul Schofield play Hamlet at the Phoenix Theatre, in London. He heard the music in the poetry and loved it again. And then as a student at university he had a professor who sat on the corner of his desk and readGawain and the Green Knight. As the professor read it he lived every word, loved every word. So did the student. Later, as a teacher in a primary school, the young man would read stories to his class at the end of the day, but only stories he loved. When he ran out of these, he made up stories of his own, and he became a story-maker and a writer. Now he cannot imagine a life without stories, reading them, making them. After many years of teaching and writing he knows the difference stories can make to children’s lives, and he has some ideas about how we might renew the old association between ourselves and stories.

Our mindset has to change. We have to stop proclaiming reading as a ladder to academic success. It should not be treated simply as a mere
educational commodity, as some kind of pill to be taken to aid intellectual development. Used as such, simply as a teacher’s tool, it is all too often counter-productive and ultimately alienating. Of course we must and should study literature in our schools, but first we have to imbue our children with a love of stories. And to do that, parents and teachers have to have a passion for stories themselves: they have to pass it on.  The children have to know that you mean it, you feel it, you love it. And a teacher needs to find the space – correction, the Government needs to give them the space in the curriculum – so that she or he can read stories to the children for at least half an hour every day. The best, and there are many of them, already do, and their children are the lucky ones. Our teachers need to be given the opportunity at college or university to come to know and love books. Let us train our teachers, not blame them. We have to unchain them, and trust them. It’s the tests and the targets that inhibit them, that bring fear into the classroom when children are far too young to cope with it.

In Finland they do things differently. Finnish children stay at home much longer. They play and tell stories, and have fun doing it, years after
ours are sitting down in school to a target-driven curriculum. Maybe that’s partly why Finnish children are happier, and maybe that’s why they rate higher in the literacy stakes. Maybe they haven’t put the cart before the horse as we do. They give their children the time and space to grow up with stories, simply to enjoy them, so that the association develops slowly, organically, is not imposed.

As for us, we’re still stuck in this muddle. We get ourselves all hot and bothered about the teaching of reading, about synthetic phonics and the like, and we forget that none of it is much use unless children really want to read in the first place. The motivation must come first, horse before cart.  We all know that unless a child is motivated to learn, then there will be apathy or resistance in the learning process.  Before we ever start to confront them with the complexities of the mechanics of reading, we should be telling and reading stories, and whole stories too, not bits of them. They are much more likely to want to deal with the difficulties of learning to read if they know it is these words that give them access to all these wonderful stories. If we really want our children to become readers for life, we would do well to remember that horses are much more fun than carts anyway.

Related RSL Fellows

Michael Morpurgo 2004