War Horse author and former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, has criticised testing in schools for killing the joy of reading, creating fear and anxiety, and bringing about a sense of worthlessness in children.
The former Children’s Laureate and President of BookTrust, speaking at the inaugural BookTrust Lecture on the evening of 21st September, said we are all as a society responsible “both for the successes and failures of our literacy and our society.” Morpurgo said that it is not just the fault of successive governments, “who corral schools and pressure teachers into teaching literacy fearfully, who insist that measurable outcomes and results are the be all and end all of the education process.”
Michael Morpurgo said that the teaching of reading in schools can take the wonder out of stories and turn them into a subject for comprehension tests, handwriting tests and grammar tests in which at least as many children fail as succeed, leading children to give up.
Morpurgo is calling for every primary school to reinstate Storytime at the end of every school day, and make it: “a special time, a fun time, devoted entirely to reading, to writing, to storytelling, to drama. No testing, no comprehension, no analysis, no interrogation. Let the children go home dreaming of the story, reliving it, wondering. All that matters at that early age is that they learn to love it, that they want to listen to more stories, read them, tell them, write them, act them out, sing them, dance them. All the rest will come later, the literacy side of things, which is important, once that seed is sown. Children have to want to learn. So give them the love of story first; the rest will follow.”
He pointed to: “an apartheid system of a kind in this country, between haves and have-not children, between those who read, who through books, through developing an enjoyment of literature, can have the opportunity to access the considerable cultural and material benefits of our society; and those who were made to feel very early on that the world of words, of books, of stories, of ideas, was not for them, that they were not clever enough to join that world, that it was not the world they belonged to, that it was shut off from them for ever.
“Our prisons are full of them, full of those we have failed. Many remain lonely and marginalised all their lives. The right book, the right author, the right parent, the right teacher, the right librarian, at the right time, might have saved some of them at least, made the difference, shone a light into a dark life, turned that life around.”
The BookTrust charity’s Annual Lecture has been launched to give a platform for debate around children’s reading. BookTrust’s Time to Read campaign is calling for families and schools to support children in developing a love of reading, keeping shared reading alive even when children are ‘too old’ for a bedtime story. Research shows that as children start school, reading enjoyment starts to slip; by the time they are ten or eleven reading as a pastime has been superseded by social media and screen time. On average, 78% of children age 5-7 read to themselves at least once a week, compared to 53% of 11-13 year olds and 38% of 14-17 year olds.
BookTrust Chief Executive, Diana Gerald, says: “Children who enjoy reading are happier, healthier; they are more empathetic, do better academically, and do better in life generally. But reading enjoyment doesn’t just happen; it needs to be encouraged, by parents, teachers and librarians. Children need to be supported to find the book that gets them hooked – whether that book is a Dickens classic, a turn-pager thriller, or a story about football, Minecraft, zombies or witches. The important thing is to give children a choice, and to support that choice.
“Reading isn’t a tick list of books that need to have been read; nor is it just a skill to be learned then filed away. Literacy can, and should be tested; reading for pleasure needs to be nurtured, and seen more like exercise – do it as regularly as you can, make it fun, and read together whenever possible for maximum benefits.”