The Empty Shelves

As I was queueing in the post office, the line snaked past the few shelves of books for sale, and an all too familiar situation caught my eye. There were three shelves of books for children. Of these one was entirely filled with Disney franchise books, another had colouring books, and books of stickers, the third had books for older children. On this last shelf were nine different titles – all but one were by the same two celebrity authors. All were the same genre.

This upset me, but perhaps not for the reasons you expect. As an author and campaigner for the rights of authors, this does frustrate me because it limits the opportunity for other authors to get their work into the hands of readers, but it’s more than that.  As a children’s librarian my frustration is doubled.

Let me explain.

I have worked with children’s books and reading for over thirty years, and I have worked with many national groups supporting children’s literacy. I’ve sat on working groups looking at the development of readers, taught hundreds of teachers how to tackle reader development in their schools, and have personally taught almost a thousand children how to read or improve their reading. So you might say I know a thing or two about reading!

People often ask me what the key to success in reader development is, and the single best piece of advice I can give anyone – be it parent, bookseller, librarian or teacher – is that the first important thing is choice. A wide, free, voluntary choice.

I live in a small rural town and, like many other towns, we are a fifty mile round trip to a large bookshop. We are very lucky in that the community fought to keep the little bookshop open. Most small towns (and indeed many larger ones too) have no bookshop at all, and the only access to purchasable reading material is the supermarket, or the few shelves in the newsagent or post office. The few books available on these shelves do not represent a wide, free, voluntary choice because they represent what the supplier wants the retailer to sell. This limits the choice available and skews the popularity (and sales figures) of the book.

In my experience I would say that roughly 30% of children coming into the primary school library choose a funny book. That’s fantastic! As a genre, funny books certainly command a decent chunk of the market share, and feature highly in the national lending figures for libraries. The most popular funny books in my library were always the ones that were a bit smarter than basic fart gags. I love a funny book and am in awe of writers who can make a reader howl with laughter. However, farts are not the only fruit.

I was chatting to bookseller, Tamsin Rosewell from Kenilworth Books, and she says that the figures for children purchasing this genre of books is far lower, and says that around 5- 10 % ask for a funny book.

“Within that, they are very selective”, Rosewell says. “When a child comes into the bookshop, or someone asks for help choosing a book for a child, the first question is “what sort of person are they?” A great many want to see situations and characters they understand to be real.”

We talked about this difference between what is borrowed, and what is bought, and theorised that the reason for this may be that when it comes to ownership, and children have the choice, they lean towards a much wider variety of genres and therefore the money is more evenly spread across the board.

We also talked about the mass-market approach to publishing.

“I’m fascinated by the way today’s book market is polarising,” said Rosewell, “and which parts of it are the focus of deep discounting. The combination of celebrity books being heavily discounted on release, and the fact almost all children’s celeb books are humour, means we are in effect creating an environment in which one genre is having its perceived value reduced.”

Most primary school age children couldn’t care less about the celebrity of the author, and were more interested in the content than the author. This situation was changed when the only books available were from celeb authors. In some of the schools where I have worked, the only authors the children knew were the ones they saw on the telly, or in the supermarket. Their free, voluntary choice had been altered by their lack of choice. They had only the illusion of choice thanks to deprivation or lack of access to other reading materials.

“If we can accept that these celeb books are a brand,” Rosewell says, “then what we have is a high-cost brand marketing campaign targeted directly at children. If it is extremely costly marketing that drives high sales, then please let’s call it marketing and acknowledge that these books are often marketed well beyond their quality.

How many adult readers realise how the big retailers and publishers are manipulating them towards the books they want to sell? Are customers of those big bookshop chains aware that publishers have paid a lot of money to have that book on a display table, and even more to be displayed in the window? Do people realise that to get on those celeb book lists the publisher has paid a vast sum?

The big publishers offer huge discounts to retailers who stock their big names. I do some work in our small community bookshop, and I am stunned at how large the discounts are for some of the big celeb names. I’ve seen new children’s titles offered to us at up to 60% discount. This is very tempting for retailers because we can sell them at full price and make a tidy profit. Of course this does mean that many retailers feel they have no choice but to give up valuable shelf space to… you guessed it… the same limited pool of authors.

All of this means the entire system is skewed towards a very limited pool of authors, and this ends up with that shelf in the post office with only celeb authors, and only one genre of books. These books obviously appear at the top of the bestseller lists, and this is hardly surprising given they dominate available retail space and command marketing budgets that would make most authors weep with envy. Every year the pool of authors who are heavily pushed in this way seems to get smaller and smaller. This means in turn we have nothing here that is diverse, inclusive or challenging. Go into any retailer who stocks books as a sideline – be it post office, supermarket, train station or airport – and no matter where you are in the UK you will see exactly the same authors, and exactly the same books.

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What a well curated choice looks like in a small bookshop.

What this aggressive marketing means is that the majority of children looking at the shelves in any large supermarket or newsagent would only see a limited choice, and would probably not see anything that they can identify with. This does not mean they won’t end up owning these celeb or funny books, because well-meaning family will see these books occupying 90% of the available bookshelves in retailers and they buy them because they believe they are doing the right thing. If it’s there, it must be popular and what every child wants, right?

Wrong. It’s not what the child who favours fantasy, or real-life stories, or non-fiction, or poetry, or thrillers wants. For these children the shelves may as well be empty.

Reading for Pleasure has a whole range of wider benefits (as detailed in the Reading Agency’s report Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, a report for which I was honoured to sit on the steering group). However, to gain the wider benefits of reading for pleasure it must be two things – a free voluntary choice, and a pleasure. This means that to support national literacy and to wider spread the benefits of reading for pleasure, people must have more available choice.

My field is, obviously, children’s books, but I know that you will see the same limited pool of authors and genres for adult books. The books the publisher wants you to buy. The authors representing the biggest investment the publisher has made so they desperately need to claw back that huge advance. Publishing is, after all, a business and the book is not a sacred object, it is a product they need to shift in large quantities in order to help their business survive. We can’t blame a retailer for stocking what serves them the largest margin of profit either.

What can be done about this? I would suggest that the only person who can actually change this situation is the shopper. Tell the retailer that you want more choice, or shop elsewhere. Seek out a retailer who is not in the sway of the super-massive publisher. It’s not easy to find an independent bookshop, but you can always use Hive and order online. Independent bookstores are more able to make independent decisions about what they stock, and they can strike deals with indie publishers and often have a far more diverse and interesting selection of books. If you’re buying books for a child as a gift, don’t be influenced by the small number of same-olds in display, ask the child who their favourite writers are and then seek professional guidance on who else writes like that. A real bookseller or librarian will be able to help you. If you don’t have one nearby, you can find them all over social media or online. If you regularly buy books, I’d suggest using the excellent services of Who Else Writes Like….? This is often also available free via the digital offerings of your public library.

Which brings me neatly to the library.

If you really want your child to grow up to become a lifelong reader, they will need choice. Lots of it. The library is a key factor in turning your child into an accomplished reader – precisely because of that treasure trove of choice. Where else can your child stand in the midst of hundreds of different titles and grab whatever catches their eye for free? Where else can your child try loads of different things until they work out which genre suits them? The school and public library should be like a groaning buffet table where children can try loads of different tastes and flavours to work out what they want to feast on for the rest of their lives. When they’ve decided what they like, then it’s time for ownership. Then it’s time to make sure that every penny spent on books is heading in the direction of something they ACTUALLY want, and not just something marketing departments have told them they SHOULD want.

Avid and developing readers deserve to have choice, and in denying them choice we are also ignoring the fact that this should be a golden age of children’s literature. In my three decades working with children’s books, I can honestly say I have never seen books of such variety, and such a high standard, as those being published today. Books are published all the time in every genre that are dazzling, challenging, diverse, inclusive, magical and addictive. I read hundreds of books for young readers every year, and the standard in the last decade has been consistently rising. Once upon a time excellent books for children were as rare as hen’s teeth, today a dozen are published every month that I would consider future classics. So why are so many being published only to never find their way onto the shelves of bookshops or retailers?

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for that one, all I know is that I read these books and I want to recommend them but they are not in any shops so people won’t find them. Given that over 95% of the coverage of new books in the media is for adult books and hardly any attention is given to books for younger readers, it’s not really surprising people have no idea how many outstanding books miss their moment – despite many being every bit as good as books from our own childhood that are considered classics.

It’s absolutely fine to have celeb books (and fart-funny books!) in the market. Many are great, and definitely deserve space on the shelves, but they don’t deserve all the space on the shelves. Choice. This is what every reading expert knows can turn a non-reader into a reader. It’s what every reader deserves.

This is why I rail against the same-old-same-old stuff on the ever diminishing bookshelves in our communities – because it matters to us all.

At least, it should.

Dawn Finch is a children’s author, librarian and community bookseller. She works extensively in the field of children’s books and writes both fiction and non-fiction for children. She is former president of CILIP (the UK library and information association) and a member of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Committee for the Society of Authors.

Her most recent publications include an educational book about Hadrian’s Wall, and a book for the School Library Association about historical fiction.

@dawnafinch

www.dawnfinch.com

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Facts and First Readers

small child reading image

I have been teaching children to read for around fifteen years and in that time I have seen a huge leap in the quality of reading schemes for children and young people. We have moved from tedious and formulaic material, to extraordinary schemes filled with beautiful imagery and content that is designed to engage developing readers. Sadly these schemes can be expensive and I am often asked by teachers and parents how they can use the books that they already have to support and develop young readers. As a non-fiction writer myself I also spend time thinking how I can use my books for creativity, and if they are accessible for the children who will use them.

As a children’s librarian I know that there are some children who only want to read non-fiction, but this represents a challenge to those teaching the mechanics of reading as these books do not always lend themselves to a progressive reading scheme. It is actually quite simple to choose non-fiction for teaching reading, but it takes careful selection and consideration.

So what are we looking for in a good non-fiction book for this purpose?

To successfully use a non-fiction book to teach reading we need these boxes ticked

  • Clean and uncluttered fonts

Many fonts act as a blockage to developing readers and confuse the child

  • Sharp and clear images with labels that link and explain

Those blurry and arty photos and illustrations are all very well in adult books, but can a child actually recognise what the picture is? This might be the first time the child has “met” this concept and the picture is an essential part of understanding what the words are saying, don’t leave them guessing.

  • Good use of different colours and well sectioned

Paragraphs and sections in different colours or boxes can help a child feel a sense of achievement. If they can’t tackle the whole page, they can do one section at a time.

  • A concise and readable contents, glossary and index

These are all essential parts of a great non-fiction book as it is the key to successfully navigating the text. To a child understanding these parts of a book is like being shown the secret to finding your way around a book without reading the whole thing, or asking for help.

  • A good mix of language using higher level vocabulary in context

Great non-fiction isn’t afraid of adding in higher level vocabulary to drop new words and concepts into a child’s life. This should be embedded in contextualisation and surrounded by solid visual prompts. When we are teaching reading we need the child to not just struggle through a whole bunch of hard words, and so a good mix is ideal.

  • Tells us something new

So many non-fiction books for children cover the same ground. I know that this is not thanks to the writers who would love to drop exciting new gems into the text, but publishers often err on the side of caution and cover familiar ground. Don’t! Each book on a subject should endeavor to tell us something that we didn’t know before.

  • Is not just there to look pretty!

There is space for books that simply look beautiful and are a joy to own, but if you are trying to use them to teach reading you need a little bit more.

When we’ve chosen the books we want to use to teach reading, we need to remember a few more things to make it work.

  • The child must choose the subject matter

Ownership of the task is important and enjoyment is the key to success

  • Start by exploring the index, contents and glossary

Help the child to first browse what’s in the book. Show them that the contents page is a bit like a tv guide, and they can quickly see what might interest them.

  • Only start reading the main body text at the very beginning if that’s where the child wants to start

Dip in and out, flick back and forth and stop at pages that catch their eye.

  • Don’t quiz!

Okay, so I know that this will probably get many teachers angry here, but I hate quizzing. It works for some children, but for many it is a dreaded task and it ruins the natural flow. Use it with great care, and informally chat instead. Tell them what you have discovered, and let them tell you what they liked and discovered. Make it a two-way process.

I have mainly used non-fiction with children who are not engaging with the process of reading and who do not like fiction. These children have often decided that reading is not for them, and so I have to be extra careful how I handle them and to make sure that I first tackle their dislike, and then tackle the skills.

Let’s look a case study….

I had great success with two non-reading Autistic boys by using only the books that they loved, not an easy task as they were really only passionate about maps. They both said that they “hated” books and refused to even try to read. One angrily told me that fiction was “rubbish” and both would not even sit and look at fiction book. Using an atlas to teach reading is not exactly easy, and it took a while to find atlases that ticked all of the above boxes, but when I did it made a world of difference (no pun intended!)

I constructed a long list of place names that contained other words, and I printed off visual prompts for the words that were “hiding” in the different countries (Germany has germ, and man, and many, and any for example). We looked at the kind of things that grew in the countries (“where does your favourite food come from?”), and the dates the countries were discovered (great for showing how long numbers look when written in words). We found out about the people who discovered the countries and the ships that they sailed in. We even looked at the languages of all of the other countries and I found foreign words that were the same root origin as ours, and many strange ones that we’d never heard of before (this was great for embedding phonetic skills rather than using confusing nonsense words). I had a huge National Geographic World map that we spread out on the floor and we found the places that we’d read about in our Atlases. We “explored” the globe and the boys learnt how to read almost by accident. They were so invested in unlocking the mysteries of the text around the maps that they almost forgot they were having reading lessons.

I knew that I would probably never create in them the kind of people who would sit and read War and Peace out of choice, but that didn’t matter to me. My aim was to give them a skill that would make the rest of their lives easier and better, and we achieved that together in a way that was hugely enjoyable for all of us.

In November I was invited to hand out the awards for the ISG Reference Book of the Year and I wanted to share with you the three books that were shortlisted for the award for the best information resource for young people. These three books represent perfect examples of great books to engage children not only in the mechanics of reading, but also in the joy of reading for pleasure.

tinyTiny, the Invisible World Of Microbes by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton explains some high-end and complex concepts with exactly the right balance of commonplace and new words. The illustrations are beautifully pitched and support the text in a way that the child can easily identify with. There is a familiarity in the friendliness of the illustrations that allows a sense of ownership over some ideas that will be very new for the developing reader.

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Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill takes the reader on an extraordinary journey through a subject matter that has not traditionally been covered for this age group. The stunning illustrations blend effortlessly with text that has been perfectly pitched for the developing reader. The balance of words and pictures is just right, and there is more than enough visual stimulation to keep the eye on the page whilst we tackle the text.

animalium

Animalium by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott (the winner of the ISG Information Resource for Children Award 2015) is a glorious trip to a Natural History Museum in book form. Its large format allows the reader to tumble into its remarkable illustrations and the accompanying text, though challenging, is great for the developing reader. The descriptive paragraphs are short, but to the point, and introduce us to all sorts of new things including Latin names.

These three books represent a small section of the very best non-fiction books for children, and they also demonstrate that some publishers are willing to take a risk and publish books that will both engage and delight.  When all is said and done, one of the most important things that we need to remember is that teaching the mechanics of reading is completely different to creating an ethos of reading for pleasure, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pleasurable. If a child is not enjoying the process, they are far less likely to become passionate lifelong readers and that’s a long term aim that matters to all of us.

Dawn Finch

Vice President CILIP

Children’s author and literacy consultant 

CWIG Committee Member

http://www.dawnfinch.com

@dawnafinch

This post was written in support of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups as part of their celebration for National Non-Fiction Month. To find out more about the excellent work of the Federation, and to support their work, please click the link below.

Federation of Children's Book Groups

Reading – what’s in it for me?

library in the sky image

For those of us addicted to reading we know exactly how enjoyable it is, but in an increasingly busy world it is often hard to make time for it, so why should we bother? There is no doubt that reading improves literacy levels, and higher literacy levels allow people to gain better educational results, and in turn get better jobs, but is that enough of an incentive to make people want to read? Despite the evidence about the benefits of reading we still see reports in the news about falling national literacy levels and the decline in reading. The Reading Agency decided that in order to tackle this it was time to look beyond literacy levels and consider the wider personal benefits of reading for pleasure*.

The Reading Agency received generous funding from the Peter Sowerby Foundation for a collaborative project to develop a reading outcomes framework. The main aim of the project was to collate and summarise the findings of the most robust studies that related to non-literacy outcomes of reading for pleasure or empowerment*. A steering group was formed from the collaborative organisations and the report (conducted by BOP Consulting) was compiled. As Vice President of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) I was invited to be part of the steering group, and I am delighted to now be able to share this report.

The report: The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, contains a powerful and undeniable message – reading is good for you.

The report confirms that people who read for pleasure benefit from a huge range of wider outcomes including increased empathy, alleviation or reduction in the symptoms of depression and dementia, as well as an improved sense of wellbeing. People who read for pleasure also have a higher sense of social inclusion, a greater tolerance and awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, and better communication skills. When we looked at the impact of reading for pleasure on people with increased health needs or issues, we found that people who were reading for pleasure demonstrated better health literacy, and were more able to cope with, and access, information related to their conditions. People who read for pleasure also showed lower levels of general anxiety.

For children and young people the evidence obviously demonstrated that children who read for pleasure had higher levels of educational attainment, but what is most interesting is how it improves the overall quality of their lives. Children and young people who read demonstrate significantly enhanced emotional vocabulary. In short, the young people who read like themselves better and cope with life better. They are more likely to use positive mental self -imagery and generally used more positive vocabulary in both their work and their lives.

This shows us that reading for pleasure is an important way of helping us to tackle issues such as social isolation, teenage depression, negative self-image, and social and educational disengagement. Reading for pleasure can make an isolated and depressed young person feel better about who they are and can make them more confident about the importance of their unique role in the world.

What can we do?
A key finding of the report is that extensive studies show that enjoyment of reading is a prerequisite for all these positive outcomes: people who choose to read, and enjoy doing so in their spare time, are more likely to reap all of these wider benefits. Negative attitudes towards reading for pleasure therefore have a much wider negative impact, and it’s essential that we create a far more positive attitude towards reading. We can throw out the “haven’t got time” and “reading is a waste of time” comments because we can clearly see that if you are reading for pleasure you are doing something that will improve the long-term quality of your life and your health.

It is worth noting that this process has to be about reading that is a free and voluntary choice. This is distinctly separate from learning how to read, and it is not the same as reading that is undertaken for study or educational purposes. In order to benefit from the wider outcomes of reading for pleasure we need to focus only on one word – pleasure. At school a focus should remain on uncritical free voluntary choice reading. Children and young people should be able to read freely from a wide range of material. They should be able to choose whatever format and style of reading material they want without feeling that it is yet another lesson or form of study. To facilitate this it is simply not enough to only have reading schemes and reading lessons, pupils of all ages require access to a well stocked school library and this will give them a better chance of becoming lifelong readers. To nurture a reading for pleasure environment all children should have access to someone who can help them to navigate the maze of books and reading in a positive way – logic dictates that this should be a school librarian.

Reading is good for you, and is something that we should all do at every stage in our lives in order to benefit personally. This should start at the cradle with reading aloud and sharing stories, and should move through our lives as pastime that is perceived as enjoyable. Reading is habit forming, and the children of readers read and are more likely to accept books and reading into their lives. We cannot expect our future adults to become readers if the only books they know are those on the reading scheme.

It doesn’t have to be expensive (remember, librarians are there to help you for free), and it doesn’t have to be great works of worthy literature. The evidence shows that all that matters is that people are reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction in any form, and that they are reading it simply because they want to. No discrimination was made about the type of reading material, or the format – all reading is good reading as long as you are doing it because you have chosen to. We need to throw out the false idea that reading is an elitist or snobby pastime that is only for the idle, and that only “good” books matter – this is simply not true.

We are bombarded with health messages that we should be acting upon, but this report shows that reading for pleasure is the simplest and most enjoyable way to gain a significant number of long-term health benefits.

So stop feeling guilty! When you’re reading you’re not wasting time, you’re working on your long-term health.
The message is simple – pick up a book, and feel better!

Dawn Finch
Vice President CILIP
CWIG Committee
Children’s author and school library consultant.
www.dawnfinch.com
@dawnafinch

Links and the technical stuff…..
The full Literature Review document can be downloaded from the Reading Agency’s website and it contains a full bibliography of all of the research used. Please share and quote the report and use #readingforpleasure to keep the conversation going.

The Reading Agency worked in collaboration with the following organisations: Arts Council England, Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians, Book Trust, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Education Endowment Foundation, National Literacy Trust, Publishers Association, Scottish Library and Information Council, Society of Authors and the Society of Chief Librarians.
The report was compiled by BOP Consulting with funding from the Peter Sowerby Foundation 

* For the purposes of the report the phrases “reading for pleasure” and “recreational reading” are used interchangeably within the body of the document. We defined this as “non-goal orientated transactions with texts as a way to spend time, and for entertainment.”
The term “reading for empowerment” is (for the purposes of this report) defined as “transactions with texts as a means of self-cultivation and self-development beyond literacy”. For example reading non-fiction material such as craft or self-help books.
Both terms were used to define reading for pleasure and empowerment in all formats and media.

Full link URL – http://readingagency.org.uk/news/media/reading-for-pleasure-builds-empathy-and-improves-wellbeing-research-from-the-reading-agency-finds.html

The image used is licensed CCO public domain but courtesy credit due to bonnybbx, creator on Pixabay. Please always credit creators.

What value……? Creativity

Living in a country that increasingly values only a monetary return on investment (ROI), it seems timely to take a look at some of the more apparently esoteric aspects of our lives, and question what value they add to society.

First up – Creativity

It is a fact that many of the teachers that I work with tell me of the diminishing amount of time spent on the creative arts in their schools. Increasingly I find myself advising teachers how (and why) they should be incorporating the arts and creativity into their curriculum.
But why bother? I have been asked this question countless times; “my child is not going to be a painter or a poet, so why are we wasting time with this stuff?”

Okay, so let’s answer that one first.
Creativity is the key to developing imaginative thought processes, and imaginative thought processes are the key to problem solving. As a society we desperately need people who are imaginative problem solvers.

Well, that was simple! What, you want more?

Right, let’s have some identifiable scenarios and look at how this fits into all of our lives and imagine (because we have well developed imaginations and so we are able to do this) a life without creative and imaginative problem solvers.

  • I want a carpet fitted but my room is an awkward shape. My carpet fitter is great at maths and so has no problem working out the square footage, but he lacks a creative imagination and so he can’t work out how to work his way around the room economically. He loses money, and so do I.
  • My car has broken down, but all of the diagnostics show that there is nothing wrong with it. My mechanic has all the tools for the job and is well trained, but he lacks a creative imagination and so he is unable to imagine any unusual scenarios that might be causing the problem. I lose money (and a car) and his business suffers.
  • I need an operation. My surgeon is well trained and has the most amazing qualifications, but she lacks a creative imagination. When I’m opened up she checks all of the medical equipment, and the text books, but she can’t see anything wrong that fits what she has learnt. She does not have the imagination to think of what might be possible, and is only able to see what is actually there. I die.

Personally I want all of the people around me to have a creative imagination because it makes for a safer, wiser and more multi-faceted society. I desire creativity and imagination in every person that I work with or hire; plumbers, electricians, cab drivers, bus drivers, cleaners, lawyers, doctors, nurses, police officers, politicians, bankers, hairdressers, teachers… In fact there is not a single occupation that would not benefit from having staff who are creative and imaginative.

In our private lives we are able to achieve greater levels of self-improvement if we are creative problem solvers. Students who are imaginative problem solvers do better with their studies and achieve higher grades. This is turn makes for a better educated society and one that is more caring and self-supporting, and one that is better equipped at problem solving.

But, to convince those sceptics out there, we are going to need some more evidence of that.

 Big businesses know that creativity is vital to success within a corporation. An IBM survey of over 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries found that they overwhelmingly valued creativity in their staff. Frank Kern, senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services said;

“Coming out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes — and facing a new normal that is distinctly different — it is remarkable that CEOs identify creativity as the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future.”

The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) prepared a report from their 17 nations about business practices and staff development. In the report they declared that “creativity and innovation” were key “21st Century competencies” They stressed that staff could not develop if they lacked creativity.

An article from Newsweek (link below) covered a number of case studies and drew on the educational creativity markers referred to and developed by E Paul Torrance. The article drew attention to the global importance of investing in the development of creative societies.
“All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.”

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This conversation starts with the child and so let’s consider the importance of creativity for the young. It is clear that we need to have creativity at the very heart of our curriculum to ensure that it takes its place at the heart of our society. It is not just about discreet teaching, creativity needs to lay like a blanket over every subject area. Teach history using paintings and poetry. Teach science and innovation by using creative writing and imaginative tasks. Teach physical fitness using dance and more physical forms of expression. Add the creative arts into social studies, literacy, languages and study skills. All subjects benefit from a broader approach, and the pupils studying them will benefit from greater creativity and will develop the ability to solve problems imaginatively.This makes for adults with a higher sense of wellbeing.

There are excellent reasons for having a cross-curricular approach to the teaching of creativity, however it is still being removed from the timetable. This is largely due to a misplaced belief that Ofsted and the Government want schools to entirely focus on academic achievement. This is simply not the case and the Ofsted inspection framework tells a very different story.
In 2012, Ofsted Director of Education, Jean Humphrys said; “Children’s ability to appreciate and interpret what they observe, communicate what they think and feel, or make what they imagine and invent, is influenced by the quality of their art, craft and design education.”

In 2014 the Department of Culture, Media and Sport commissioned a report to look into the impact of cultural engagement. Being a Government department they like to put a monetary value on things, and one of their key findings stated: “Arts engagement was found to be associated with higher wellbeing. This is valued at £1,084 per person per year, or £90 per person per month.”  

The report finds that: “These findings suggest that participation in culture and sport could lead to increased employment in the economy as there are associations between culture, sport and job satisfaction”

They also found that engagement with the arts results in a significant increase in the likelihood of young people going on to further or higher education. Despite this evidence headteachers and senior leadership teams genuinely believe that they will not achieve the grade of Outstanding if they have a curriculum that shows a leaning towards creativity and the arts. However the inspection reports that I see tell a different story.

One of the schools that I am connected to recently received a glowing inspection report and achieved the enviable grade of “Outstanding in all areas.” The headteacher at this school is a poet and a writer and has encouraged his staff to work with an incredibly creative curriculum. Every time I visit he is working with the children on a new art project to embed all that they are learning in other subjects. There is a fabulous dinosaur in the library (made to support their prehistory studies) and the dining hall is hung with paper mache fruit (made by children during their science work about healthy eating.) Every class is decorated with the creative work of pupils, and there is a strong ethos of drama, dance, music and art that runs throughout the whole curriculum.

In the inspection report for this school, Ofsted say this about the curriculum: “All of the themes create plentiful opportunities for pupils to practise their reading, writing and mathematical skills, engage in creative musical and art-based activities and debate about issues of morality.”

“Pupils learn in lively, stimulating classrooms and are excited about their learning. Those who spoke to inspectors said that their new creative curriculum was both interesting and challenging.”

But for me the very best reason for developing a school ethos based on imagination and creativity is that it makes for happier children, and happier children make better learners. This is my favourite part of this Outstanding report as it says everything you need to know about the importance of a school that understands the value of creativity.

“The behaviour of pupils is outstanding. The school’s over-riding supportive ethos forms the basis of a friendly atmosphere, in which relationships thrive. Pupils’ attendance is high, and they love coming to school to learn with their friends.”

This is the true return on investment in creativity and the arts; a better society.

Dawn Finch

Children’s author and literacy consultant

Vice President CILIP

CWIG committee member

Links

Can they dig it?

My guest post this month is from archaeologist and researcher, Dr Tess Machling. Tess has not only worked on many excavations, but has done some inspiring work with young children bringing the past to life through archaeology.

In this wonderful article she shows us how to bring archaeology to life in the primary classroom.

Finding Their Voice

Ask any archaeologist when they first got interested in archaeology and most will immediately become misty eyed and regale you with a tale of their first garden find, the place they visited that made them say ‘wow’ or that odd museum artefact that they returned to time and time again as a youngster. We all have a favourite memory – mine is poking about in the veggie patch at the bottom of our garden for bits of pottery and old glass. Mostly we will tell you about how our favourite find felt in our hands, what it looked like, where our favourite place was. Not many will immediately mention books.

Archaeology (as well as being harder to spell) is unlike its sister discipline history and is all about stuff and things. Dirt and toil. Forget tiny paintbrushes and painstaking care: it is much more hands on than that. It is not about words, the written page, the beauty of language, etc, although of course, like any discipline, its means of conveying itself to the world is often via the written word.

However, for me, the beauty of archaeology is that the whole discipline begins with what we find below our feet: the weightiest archaeological thesis and the most impenetrable work of archaeological theory all started life as things in the ground. And the long and the short of it is that anyone can find something: anyone can dig a hole.

I think this is why the interest of so many archaeologists starts in their youth: when you are young it is natural to scrabble around in the dirt. Children have unjaded magpie eyes which see the world as brand new, constantly seeking out anything shiny, smooth, patterned, or just plain ordinary, as a keepsake. If it can be discovered in a muddy patch of ground, then so much the better. This, in microcosm, is the world of the archaeologist!

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Also, at this stage in their lives children are untroubled by the correct terminology for something, they can just like how it feels, what it looks like or how heavy it is. They will collect things according to what fascinates them, with no reference to adult values of worth or importance. They don’t need to quantify it, describe it or validate it. But I can guarantee they will want to know more about it. What it is and where it came from. How old it is and how it got where it is now. And this love of things dug up is in itself a way into literacy and the spoken word.

In 2014, Prehistory was added to the English National Curriculum and, to help with the topic, I carried out a week long archaeological dig with sixty 7 to 9 year olds at my daughter’s primary school in Hertfordshire.  After all, with a mind boggling one million years of human history to cover in just 11 weeks, we thought it might be an idea to give them a taster of the basics first!

To understand archaeological time you really have to understand -our second long word of the day –  ‘stratigraphy’, which is the order and position of layers in  the ground. The best way for very small children to grasp this concept is to go and dig: generally, the lower you go, the older the things you find are. At our school, we started on the surface with 21st century Lego bricks and plastic pen lids and as we got lower came up with early 20th century marbles and pen nibs. Within a day or so they had got the idea to the point that, when someone said they might find dinosaur bones, one 7 year old girl piped up with the blistering retort ‘No, you won’t! They will be much, MUCH, further down as they are very old’.

Although the concept of almost one million years was never going to be easy for a young child (let’s face it, how many adults can actually relate to time periods on that scale…I’m not sure I can) they had the idea of depth equals old.

They also then grasped the idea that each period of ‘old’ had a different name: if ‘archaeologist’ and ‘stratigraphy’ were  big enough words, then ‘Palaeolithic’, ‘Mesolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’ were going to take a bit of doing. But, by relating them to technology – these were all ‘lithic’ or ‘stone’ ages which were followed by the ‘Bronze’ age and then the ‘Iron’ age – they all started to use the terms frequently and, what was more amazing, accurately!

In addition, they desperately wanted to know about what they had found with each child identifying strongly with whichever artefact they had discovered. They all wanted to know what their find was made of and how old it was. They got online and typed in search terms and they looked things up in –specialist, I should add- archaeology books I had brought in. All this from children who had often shown no interest in the written word. The children added written labels and descriptions to these finds as they created their class museum: not once did a child have to be told twice what their find was and each eagerly showed their peers and parents which find was ‘theirs’.

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Some of our “finds”

The aspect that stood out most strongly to me (I am a volunteer reader at the school and know the children well) was how much the children who were not traditionally ‘academic’ related to the topic. The disengagement so often seen in children with little cultural capital was replaced by a newly unleashed knowledge and a feeling of empowerment: an ability to tell their peers exactly what they had found and a pride in their achievement. Words that would baffle the average adult tripped lightly off the tongues of children who struggled with CVC words on the page. Some four months on, little bags of finds, sometimes also contained in home-made and labelled egg-box museums, still arrive at school for me to examine.

Their aspirations also changed: several now decided that they would like to be archaeologists when they grew up with a few deciding that they wanted to be a Dr of Archaeology, ‘…like Dr Tess’. During a visit to Stonehenge, one little lad stood gazing absentmindedly at the stones and recited his new title over and over in a whisper ‘Dr. Hussein, Dr Hussein, Dr Hussein. I’m going to be Dr Hussein’.

For that one moment alone it was all worthwhile…..

Article written by Dr Tess Machling

Archaeologist and researcher

Ask a librarian.

As a children’s librarian I have been asked a lot of the same questions over the last decade. I know that parents often have similar concerns about their child’s reading, and so I thought I would share some of those questions with you, and my answers.

I hope you find them helpful.

I have a child in infant school and they don’t seem to be reading as well as the other children, what can I do? Some of the other children are on much higher books, why is my child not the same?

This needs a longer answer, but I’ve already covered in a longer post, and I’ve covered a lot of the issues that cause stress in parents about their child’s reading. Relax, it’ll be fine, they are all different and taking the pressure off is the first step to reading enjoyment.

 My daughter is seven and has read the first two of the Harry Potter books, but I think the next ones will start to get too scary for her. I don’t want to stop her reading or censor the books, but she’s only seven and easily scared!

People tend to forget that just because small people can read a book, it doesn’t mean they are emotionally ready for the content. After all, I’m sure your eight year old boy is more than linguistically capable of tackling all of the words printed in Nuts and Loaded magazines, but would you give him a copy?

The Harry Potter books are a good example of this desire to push books to bright readers too early (not that I’m comparing Harry to Loaded!) Remember that Harry is eleven in the first book, and so his life experience is based around the life of an eleven year old (albeit an extraordinary one!) Some seven and eight year olds are absolutely fine with a story that features an abused orphan who is locked in a cupboard and not allowed to deal with the death of his parents, but many are not. Children are often fine with scary magical elements, but it is the emotional content that may disturb and upset some young children.

You know if your child is emotionally ready for certain books or not, just don’t ever make the mistake of choosing books for much older children simply because you have a bright reader. Take advice, ask a librarian (ask me!), ask a good bookseller (not one that just wants to sell you the latest bestseller.) This is not about censorship, it is about guidance. If in doubt, read it yourself and ask yourself if your child is ready for this material. If your child is too young to emotionally deal with certain material, or too young to bond with the characters in the book, then you will only succeed in putting them off. Save these books for when they are ready to really enjoy them, and are able to fully appreciate the complexities of the plots. Don’t give in to parental snobbery or pushiness (“my daughter is only eight and has already read Twilight/Hunger Games/War and Peace…”) Go with what you know about your child, and be honest about what might upset them and what they might not be emotionally ready for. There is a vast amount of material to choose from, you just might need a bit of assistance to navigate the choice. Take them to a good library and a good bookshop and you’ll find all the help you need. Encourage them to read what they will enjoy, not what they feel under pressure to say they have read.

 The only thing my boy wants to read is comics and comic books, how can I stop him?

Why would you want to?

I almost left that answer there, but I do need to make a bit of an effort to convince you all!

Comics are AMAZING!! Don’t stop your child from reading anything, and don’t be critical unless you have dipped your toe in the water yourself. I grew up on comics and progressed to graphic novels and I’m still hooked. Reading is reading, and comics are a fantastic way for children to contextualise higher level vocabulary using visual prompts.

And they’re cool.

My child’s school doesn’t have a school librarian, does it matter?

Yes. 

OK, so I should say more than that – but it seems glaringly obvious that your child deserves the very best for their education, and you have every right to expect your school to provide that. A good school employs staff members who are qualified for the job. A school librarian has a very specific skill-set that goes far beyond handing out a book. They are supportive of your child’s reading and involved in their progression. They provide the expert advice and support that you and your child require for them to progress with their literacy, and engage in books and reading.  A librarian should be there to ensure that reading is a pleasure, a lifelong habit, and this in itself will have a massive positive effect on your child’s life.

Why would you not want this for your child?

Good literacy will vastly improve your child’s life and their opportunities in the future. Quite simply, they will be smarter if they read more. Fact.

If your child’s school does not have a library and a librarian, ask why.

This leaflet will give you all the reasons why your child deserves this, and what to look for in prospective schools.

 Ok, that’s it for now – more soon!

If you are not lucky enough to have a school librarian, you can always ask me a question.

NOT reading lessons!

Your dear little lad has brought home Him, you know the one, the kid who is smart and funny and who you wish you didn’t like because he seems to be perfect at everything. He has normal and regular parents and a normal and regular vocabulary…so why is he already on Gold books?

LESSON ONE…….

STEP AWAY FROM THE BOOKBAG!

And relax…

Seriously, looking at other children’s books is not helping you or your child, it is only putting more pressure on you both and turning what should be an enjoyable activity into homework.

Human beings are hardwired for reading, that’s the good news. Most children have an epiphany moment with their reading somewhere between the ages of five and ten – yes, I said TEN! The epiphany moment is quite remarkable – a child can just suddenly find the right book or the right motivation and they whoosh off with their reading.

So what does the school expect? They probably won’t tell you, but your child will be expected to comfortably reach Level 2 by the time they enter Year Three. This means that they will be assessed through a series of increasingly dull and worthy texts to ensure that they can do things like blend phonemes, understand what a text is about and answer questions about it and recognise the component parts of a book like an index and a glossary. The bare bones of reading are pretty tedious and the chances are your child will be doing this stuff long before they reach transition to Year Three. So relax.

If, however, your child is not quite there, it doesn’t mean that they won’t get there with a little help. A good number of children have issues that may impact on their reading and hold back their epiphany moment, but that doesn’t mean they can’t achieve the basics that will get them a comfortable Level2/3 at infant-primary transition.

  • Read with your child. When they hit a word that they don’t know, remember, they have never met this word before and will need an introduction. Let them try three times, no more than that because it becomes horribly frustrating.
  • Let your child read alone. No help, no input, just let them sit with words in front of their faces. These need to be their choice and it might be something you loathe. Tough!
  • Read to your child. I can’t begin to tell you how important it is for children to be read to. Not just picture books, longer books with chapters that they are not yet ready to read alone. It is a superb way of expanding their vocabulary, gives them something to aim for, and it’s lovely. Do not assume your child is too old for this, you are never too old for a bedtime story.
  • Acknowledge and draw attention to the fact that there are words everywhere. Give them reading with a purpose so that it does not feel as if you are expecting them to carry out a homework-like task. Ask them what the competition is on the cereal packet, put the subtitles on when they are watching their favourite tv show, stick post-it notes on the objects around the house that have new and exciting words to learn (such as television, radiator, refrigerator) Children have incredible powers of assimilation and suck up new words with ease – provided they see and hear them repeatedly.

The most important thing you can do for your child is to enjoy reading yourself and stop making it a chore. Make it a treat and let them soak up any words that they want (I’m a great fan of the literary qualities of the Beano) and stop putting pressure on them to be the same as others. They all learn at different paces and all come to reading in different ways. You probably don’t need to buy any special books or sign up for some expensive plan or club, just look out for reading opportunities everywhere.

Remember – only one in ten adults regularly read a book, and yet we expect 100% of small children to do it. It just might not be their thing, and there may be educational issues that need addressing, but it doesn’t mean they can’t become independent readers who enjoy diving into a book.

Most of all…RELAX!

 

Originally posted on www.beingamummy.co.uk

Dawn Finch is a YA author and for the last decade she has specialised in reading development in young children. She is vice-chair of the London and South East School Libraries Group and a published author. Her book (Brotherhood of Shades) is a contemporary ghost story and is published by Harper Collins.

You can ask her questions about books and reading at www.dawnfinch.com