The Importance of Story

          Okay, Christmas is over. Frivol is over. I want to return to the subject I was talking about before the mince-pies.

          Let’s be clear about one thing. Learning to read is hard.

          I remember a friend, a very educated woman, talking about a branch of her family that she obviously didn’t waste much love on. She’d heard that a distant twig of this branch had become a teacher. “It’s the first I knew that they could read!” she said.

          I’ve heard lots of variants on this joke. The subtext is: reading is easy, it’s kid’s stuff, something everyone can do. Therefore, if you can’t read, you’re stupid. I used to be a volunteer tutor at an Adult Literacy class, and I know how much this sneer hurts adults who find reading difficult.

          And it’s based on a fallacy. Reading is very, very hard.

          When someone immediately reads a sentence they’ve never seen before, they are, almost instantaneously, cracking a complex code, and converting shapes into sounds.
          A musician who sight-reads music is rightly admired, but someone who sight-reads a sentence is doing something only slightly less difficult.
          Because it’s a relatively common skill doesn’t make it easy. Driving averagely well is also a common skill, but no one assumes that’s it’s a doddle to learn or that it’s ’kids’stuff.’

          I’ve read that it takes about eight years to learn to read fluently. Because those of us who master the skill usually start very young, we tend not to remember its many difficulties.
          Those who don’t learn so quickly enter secondary school with a low reading age, and education for them becomes a worsening struggle. They’re made to feel failures, even if they are not told so outright. Hence the acute embarrassment often felt by my friends in the Adult Literacy Class.

          Our education system expects children to enter secondary school with a reading-age matching their chronological age, and, in secondary school you don’t ‘learn to read,’ you ‘read to learn.’

          If you can’t read, your formal education more or less comes to a halt. Schools become Aversion Therapy Units, putting children off education for life.

          I have always revelled in the knowledge that if something interests me – Neanderthals, say, or brochs or rievers – ‘there’ll be a book on it.’ If I hadn’t been one of the lucky ones who went through school with a high reading age, I probably wouldn’t even have heard of most of the things that interest me. And though I haven’t done much with my fluent reading, how can we ever know what potential is being lost in the thousands of children we fail to teach to read fluently? How many mute inglorious Miltons and potential Brunels are we throwing away? It’s a huge waste and a national shame.

          Before Christmas, I was blogging about some of the teaching methods being developed, based on Michael Halliday’s theories. These methods aim to bridge the skill-gap between children who start school with thousands of hours of experience with books and language, and those children who start with much less. (To read the earlier blogs on this subject, go here.)

          One way is for schools to provide the experience that might be lacking at home. Instead of being constantly tested and graded, children should be read to, and told stories. Poems should be learned, songs sung.

          I’ve heard adults say children ‘waste their time in school. They only listen to stories.’

          Hearing stories is not a waste of time. Stories have, for millennia taught communication. They enlarge vocabulary and range of expression. A child who learns how to structure a fairy-story will understand better, years later, how to structure an essay – and even, how to order their own thoughts to make better decisions.

          And all this story-telling and poetry listening should be as pleasurable as possible – because, if it isn’t, then the children switch off their brains, and you’re wasting your time and breath.

          Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that story-telling has been used, for millennia, as a teaching aid – to gain attention, to hold attention, and to be memorable. (The Good Samaritan, for instance, The Ant and the Grasshopper – even The Little Engine Who Could.)

          I quote the Ontario Ministery of Education (these methods have been successful in Canada.) Becoming a reader is a continuous process that begins with the development of oral language skills and leads, over time, to independent reading. Oral language – the ability to speak and listen – is a vital foundation for reading success.’ 
Illustration: Kai Nielsen
        And where that foundation hasn’t been provided at home, the school must provide it. Tell them stories! The Brothers Grimm, The Little Red Hen, The Gingerbread Man. That masterpiece of suspense, The Billy Goats Gruff.

          This is not ‘just play.’ This is not ‘wasting time.’ The frequent hearing and discussion of these old stories extends vocabulary, and demonstrates a whole spectrum of possible emotions and responses, from grief to gratitude, from rage to forgiveness, from fortitude and determination, to despair, to devotion. They teach pronunciation, rhythm, alliteration – and various modes of speech, from the everyday to the archaic and formal. Stories do all this, and more, and they do it pleasurably, so that children beg for more.

          Gradgrind was, as Dickens pointed out, wrong. Stories are not mere entertainment, they are not a waste of time.

          Story-telling is the seed-bed of eloquence and literacy.

          And here's Blott in 'Twelfth Night.'