Is knowledge of children's literature really that important?
By Alison Tarrant, CEO of the School Library Association
I’m delighted that the Teachers’ Reading Challenge is running again this year. It’s a perfect opportunity to talk about an important issue, and also do something to create a positive change.
What’s the issue?
Let’s do an experiment together – write your answers down as you go…
- Set a timer for 30 seconds.
- Write down 5 books you’d recommend to a child if you got stopped in the school corridor.
- Stop when you get to 30 seconds, however many you’ve got.
- Cross out any books you read when you were younger, or that your parents read to you.
Q1: How many do you have?
- Highlight any which aren’t fiction (e.g. information books, graphic novels, comics, manga)
Q2: How many are there?
- Highlight any that are written by minority authors, or that include characters along those lines.
Q3: How many are there?
This is an exercise I first saw being done a few years ago (I think it was by the brilliant Teresa Cremin) and I’ve added the last few questions. I recently did a training session with NQTs, and none of them had any responses for the last two…
There is a sustained and ongoing issue with the level of knowledge held by teachers about children’s literature. This perhaps isn’t surprising given that there’s a) so much to cover in teacher training and b) the persistent issue of teacher workload. In 2008, Teresa Cremin found that there were significant gaps and that many teachers relied on stories they’d read when they were young, or just a few classics (1).
The exercise is designed to make a point – which it does very effectively, in my experience – and highlights the need to have a wide range of books at the forefront of your mind; for when you’re stopped in a corridor and asked for recommendations, for example. Each teacher, TA and librarian needs a range of books to recommend for everyone to experience and enjoy. This is all the more important as it’s not just teachers that face this problem.
Oxford University Press carried out some research in 2021 (2), and out of 4000 parent respondents, when asked what their favourite book or author was to read to their child, 63% chose books to read that they had read while they were younger. And the unfortunate thing is that is a circle which strengthens itself – there have been occasions of well-meaning teachers recommending books which are just not appropriate for the age range to other teachers, and thinking it’s a reliable suggestion they buy it… My colleagues and I have seen these discussions happen. I’ve got personal experience of being invited to a primary school library by the head, who was incredibly proud of the provision they had – and rightly so – but I did have to recommend that she remove some books from the shelves as they were for 14-16+.
Farshore research from 2021 (3) found that 50% of 3–4-year-olds, 41% of 5–7-year-olds, and only 22% of 8-10s were reading every day, or nearly every day, at home. All school staff are responsible for changing this and communicating the impact of reading for pleasure. It’s not just teachers, and not just library staff, but all staff who should be involved in generating a reading culture. It’s the only way it’s a culture, and not just a ‘nice to do’ or thing on the to-do list.
As mentioned above, workload is a genuine concern and a barrier for many staff who want to engage in this. This is why the School Library Association believes that all schools should have access to a staffed library (shared if necessary) – a shared resource and expertise which drives the reading culture of the school, and takes some of the weight of responsibility off teachers. All teachers deserve the support which comes with having someone centrally, so that when they are preparing for a new topic, or for a different cohort, there’s someone to go to and say “We’re going to be doing this. What resources are there?” and that someone can pull together a wide and varied list for the particular cohort on the topic. Similarly, a school librarian can’t generate a reading culture by themselves. They can ignite it, but without the energy and support of teaching staff the spark dies.
All school staff – teachers, librarians, TAs and others – need to stay up to date, which is a tall order in itself. The UK is experiencing a golden age – or platinum age, perhaps – of children’s literature. There are more books being published, and more to choose from. This can also make it harder to find the books which suit your need. Schools need to make sure that resources are maximized so that every reader can progress – in skill and will – and this requires a range of factors.
A new report written by the OU’s Teresa Cremin and Becky Coles, based on data from BounceTogether and the School Library Association, shows that of the 1194 responses from children ages 8-11, 12% responded neutrally/negatively to the idea of having a favourite book. These are readers who may be unlikely to develop their enjoyment because they haven’t yet experienced that feeling of being utterly lost in a story. Interestingly, the same report also found that only 14% said they’d ask an adult to help them find a new book. What caused this response we don’t know, and there will be many factors involved, but I can’t help but wonder if some poor suggestions have been given, or if there’s an assumption they wouldn’t know what the ‘best’ books are…
As I mentioned at the beginning, I like the Teachers’ Readers Challenge because it is part of the solution – get school staff reading and discussing books together. This will build a bank of recommended books. My top tips to build your reading knowledge throughout the year are:
- Find an organization that suits your school to help; there are loads out there. Charities, schools’ library services, commercial organizations – there’s plenty to choose from and a range of services.
- Use your public library (including e-books or audio books). They’ll have a much bigger budget so you can try before you buy – does it do what you want it to, in an accessible way?
- Find a reading champion – reading is vital for education, but some staff members (teachers included) will need more support to activate reading in their classrooms. Of course, this could be your school librarian!
- Don’t feel like you have to read the whole book – none of us (school library staff included!) are paid to read, there’s plenty else to do. Reading the first chapter or two will give you a good flavour of the book, enough to know who it’ll suit best. Don’t recommend it – you haven’t finished it – but for KS2/3 try: “I’ve not read this book, but it sounds like you might like it. It’s x, y, z. Do you want to try and let me know what you think?”
- Talk to the children and their communities and families. Reading needs to be a broad and inclusive activity, and shouldn’t put schools and families in combat with each other. Remember, we’re talking about reading for pleasure here, not reading for progress, so it doesn’t matter what the format, level, or language is. Identify their reading habits at home and build on them. It’ll widen your knowledge and make a better reading community at the same time.
Alison Tarrant is the CEO of the School Library Association, and has been a school librarian, gifted and talented co-ordinator, and form tutor. The SLA is a membership association which supports everyone involved in school libraries, reading and research skills in schools. www.sla.org.uk @uksla
You can read the full report from the OU, based on the data from Bounce Together and the School Library Association here.
1. Cremin, Teresa & Bearne, Eve & Mottram, Marilyn & Goodwin, Prue. (2008). Primary teachers as readers. English in Education. 42. 10.1111/j.1754-8845.2007.00001.×..↩
2. Oxford University Press (2021) Parents opt to read old classics to children over new fiction.↩
3. Farshore (2021) Reading for Pleasure and Purpose↩