Posted 30 July 2012 by Hannah Berry

Children. How good are they? There's only one way to find out, of course. You won't know who is winning childhood unless you test the merry hell out of them. It's no good looking back over little Timmy's youth and saying, 'Well he enjoyed himself, and he really got into reading that summer he discovered those wizard books, and he's loved football since he was-' No. How can you compare that to other children? How can you know which is the best child from this? No. The answer is 'Timmy, 6 years old, 48% average and 3.49/5 in the upper median'*. NOW we can see just how good little Timmy is compared to the rest of the country, indeed the rest of the world. Well done, Timmy. Enjoy your life now that you know your place.


I'm being facetious of course, but only because misguided and damaging government plans tend to make me angry, and anger leads to facetiousness. The intention to impose literacy testing on young children while simultaneously ignoring and flying in the face of the recommendation from Ofsted to do more to encourage reading for enjoyment was the subject of this summit last week and prompted this open letter to the Guardian this week. Education and literary hackles everywhere are raised.


I am no education expert, but I'd like if I may to throw Finland into this argument. Yes, the entire country. The Finns clearly have something right: their education system advocates a policy of non-competitive learning, which means that testing is only done occasionally and very locally to ensure that the class has understood what has just been taught. Testing at a national level is not done until the age of 16/17; there are no league tables and no inspections and results of this national exam are not published. Intriguingly, they support learning guided by interests and are very active in encouraging reading for pleasure (Finland incidentally publishes more children's books than any other country).


Also, most importantly, they are continuously ranked first in the world (or within spitting distance of first) in the UN's Education Index. The system works, and it works very, very well. Honestly, read this and this and tell me it doesn't sound like an education utopia.


I suppose the argument behind knowing each child's exact ability is that you can easily pinpoint problem areas and address them, but this is based on the assumption that teachers pay no attention whatsoever to their class and would be unable to spot a child struggling to keep up. Which is as ridiculous as it is offensive.


But the most insidious problem with this ardent testing of literacy is the unpleasant association of reading with compliance. Reading becomes not a skill or a tool that opens up avenues of enjoyment but a hoop to jump through; a chore to be carried out to appease others. And what child will ever believe you when you say 'it's fun to conform'? If reading becomes guilty by association then what hope does reading for pleasure have? Children would become suspicious of books in the same way a lab rat might become suspicious of its food: what may once have been enjoyable is now laced with ulterior purpose.


Like everyone else on the internet though, I have an answer. Not the answer, but an answer. I will call it 'stealth learning'.


'Comics are cheap and disposable, a poor substitute for prose.' Wrong? Yes. Unfair? Highly. Appealing to disgruntled kids turned off by 'worthy' reads? Undoubtedly.


I described in a previous post how wildly accessible the comic format is, particularly when the illustrations can provide a handy support for those learning to read, but I may not have explained how enjoyable they are, too. If it hasn't been obvious so far from the tone of my voice, please know that I love comics. Love them. If you pick up the right one, it can transport you in the same way that any prose novel can. They can be just as engrossing and equally as educational, and to someone intimidated by reading the page of a comic or graphic novel can look infinitely more appealing than an unbroken block of text. In fact, it helps to think of graphic novels as prose broken up by imagery. The text is less dense, but that's not to be confused with dumbed down. It doesn't look like reading, but, and this is very important to remember: it is. Enjoyable, accessible and educational: ladies and gentlemen, I give you stealth learning.


Where to begin, though? I appreciate with graphic novels and comics it can be difficult to know where to start - in fact I wouldn't know where to begin with suggesting a title for kids - but help is at hand, parents/teachers/librarians, help is at hand. Page 45 is a shop in Nottingham renowned for its efforts to bring comics and graphic novels to a wider audience and for its honest approach to making recommendations. Last month manager Stephen Holland attended the Lighting the Future School Libraries Conference in Windsor and presented a workshop on manga and graphic novels, bringing with him 50 recommended titles for younger audiences. You can read that same list here, where you will also find convenient links to reviews for each one elsewhere on their site. (I believe you can also get in touch with them to recommend a more specific title if little Timmy is a choosy customer.)


It's the perfect in-road to the world of literature for the wary.


*I've made these figures up. I don't have children. I don't know what parameters quantify a 6 year old.




Hully Gully by The Olympics


Topical, see? Because Olympics.

The hully gully: the forgotten dance. (Forgotten hastily because it was very, very silly.)




This is a fantastic article....I am a primary school teacher and every teacher I know would agree with everything you have written above. So how can the powers that be justify getting it that wrong? I know that their priority cannot be the individual child and their overall well-being, unlike the mission of every good teacher. Love the idea of bringing comics into the literacy arena more....will try it out next term!

C Chapman
5 August 2012

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