Wednesday, 16 June 2010

When should children learn to read?

This is a very controversial question - and there is so much to say about it!

I recently wrote about it for Times 2 and you can see that here, or the slightly longer version, below....
The one in the Times, also included two opinion pieces, one in favour of early reading and one against.

By Sarah Ebner

Over the border in Wales, young children are experiencing a different kind of education. Whilst experts here laud Scandinavia for their educational expertise, how many English parents know that in Wales, they are already following a play-based curriculum up until the age of seven? And there haven’t been any riots, yet.
“At the beginning there was a bit of distrust from the parents,” says Sarah Owen, a mother of three (and former teacher) from Welshpool. “We all knew that play was important, but I know that a lot of us were wondering how our children would learn to read if they were playing all the time. After all, it’s drilled into us that the sooner you learn to read, the better.”
Sarah has two children, Meg, 10 and Tom, 8, who are too old to have experienced the new Foundation Phase in Wales. Five-year-old Carys, however, is taking full advantage.
“I think it’s the right way to go,” says Sarah. “She is definitely stimulated, but also seems to have this more joyous feeling about school. They do a lot of outdoor play, but she is reading too – they introduce this at the child’s own level. As long as a child has access to books and enjoys them, reading will come naturally.”
Sarah’s views are relevant as they come in the middle of a heated debate about the value of early schooling and particularly when children should be taught to read. New research published this week was interpreted in two startlingly different ways. Some claimed it showed early teaching had no impact on children at the age of five; others said quite the opposite.
However, David Richardson, co-author of the new study, says it does show that children who attend pre-school before the age of three do better – both educationally and socially -at age five.
“Our evidence suggests that early years do have an impact,” he said.
So when should children learn to read? Can they be damaged (or put off reading) by starting too early or fall behind if they start too late? The problem is that there’s no definitive answer – even though educationalists have very strong opinions.
“Up to the age of six or seven, the true foundations of literacy are caught, not taught. We have to invest in training practitioners in how to help children catch them,” says Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood.
Palmer thinks there’s “no rush” to teach children to read, and is particularly unhappy about the targets set in the English early years curriculum. She points to Finland, with its very high literacy rates. Children there don’t start formal reading until they’re seven.
Palmer also emphasises new research by Sebastian Suggate (NB: see his opinion piece attached) which suggests that there’s no advantage at all in learning to read early.
However, although Palmer seems to be firmly on one side of the argument, much of what she says will ring true with those who support earlier education.
“I think there’s a set of bunker positions put into this,” says John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers. “It’s really an unfair polarity.
“No one is going to recommend forcing phonics on kids at a very early age, but having fun with words and phonics is exactly right. Picking up reading skills is part of child development, but the key is for the children to have fun.”
However, Bangs also adds:
“There’s this idea that kids are going to be polluted by teaching before a certain age. I don’t believe that. I don’t have a problem with age barriers.”
Those who argue that reading should be taught as early as possible often point to disadvantaged children to make their case. There is an increasing body of research which suggests that children with educated parents have an advantage. However, others can be helped by good pre-school care.
This is shown in particular by the landmark research being carried out by the EPPE (Effective Provision of Pre-school Education) project. It concludes that pre-school does have an impact - as long as it’s of good quality.
“Yes, it benefits children,” says Professor Pamela Sammons, from the Department of Education at Oxford University. “It provides them with a better start to school, with the biggest boost to language development at age five.”
And when it comes to reading, Professor Sammons says you simply need a light touch.
“There’s lot of evidence that if you don’t learn to read, you become demotivated later on,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of having fun. You can play with letter sounds, sing songs and nursery rhymes, at home and at pre-school. We’re not talking about formal teaching behind desks.”
Perhaps this point should be emphasised for those people without young children. The way schools teach their youngest pupils has changed in recent years, with much more of a stress on play. Widespread use of phonics has also made a real difference, and despite the sense of gloom and doom around literacy, England still performs well in international studies.
So there’s no quick answer to when a child should learn to read, except that there is no hard or fast rule! The quality of the teacher is vital as is the recognition that all children are different. Phonics appears to help, and over-prescription doesn’t. And above all, play is vital.

The Effective Pre-school and Primary Education (EPPE) project is the largest European study of the impact of early years education and care on children’s developmental outcomes. Early Childhood Matters, edited by Kathy Sylva, Edward Melhuish, Pam Sammons, Iram Siraj-Blatchford, Brenda Taggart has just been published by Routledge.

Horrible historians and writing the books - Terry Deary interview

I also did a lengthy Terry Deary interview - which you can read here or below....

Of horrid historians and terrible teachers

Terry Deary wishes he wasn't best known for writing the Horrible Histories series Sarah Ebner

Terry Deary hates publishing and historians — an interesting combination given that he owes his fame and fortune to both. But Deary, a self-described anarchist, is a rather unusual man.

He is best known as the author of the Horrible Histories series of books, which are much loved by children around the world. Yet the 64-year-old says that he wants to turn his back on writing for children, is hugely critical of publishing (calling it “the seediest profession I’ve worked in”) and reserves his bile for historians, whom he calls “seedy and devious”.

“They pick on a particular angle and they select their facts to prove their case and make a name for themselves,” he says angrily. “They don’t write straight history. They don’t write objective history. Obnoxious people such as Niall Ferguson write a book to prove that the British Empire was a good thing. They use history to make a political point.”

Deary’s grey hair and soft Sunderland accent give the impression that he’s mild-mannered. It’s deceptive. In reality, although he’s friendly and open, he has a huge number of bugbears, including politicians and fellow children’s authors.

But chief among these are historians. Deary says that they’re what stop him loving history and denies, indignantly, that his books are history books at all.“I write about people,” he says firmly. “And that’s the most fascinating subject in the world.”

However, Deary’s success is partly due to the historians he despises. The Horrible Histories, after all, retell historical facts collated from other books, rather than original sources. Deary doesn’t actually do any of the research himself — something I found a little disappointing. Instead, a team of researchers find the quirky facts, all those ancient swear words and toilet practices among them.

“My skill is retelling,” explains Deary, unapologetically. “I’m a writer, not a historian. My job is to re-present what the researchers find and make that information accessible to young readers.”

The books are incredibly popular, appealing to boys and girls, the holy grail of children’s publishing. They have been turned into stage plays, museum exhibitions (one of these, Terrible Trenches, is currently showing at the Imperial War Museum) and a very successful television series, which starts again today.

They are known for history with all the horrible bits left in — the gruesome and disgusting, including snot, bile and blood, wrapped up with cartoon-like illustrations and accurate historical information. Deary writes an introduction to each book, explaining that it will be “full of the sort of facts that teachers never bother to tell you”.

The books are not always objective — which is the exact criticism levelled by Deary against historians. The one on the British Empire, for example, is extremely biased against imperialism. But Deary says that this is deliberate. “I’m putting the weight on the other side of the balance, to counteract the lies teachers tell you when you’re at school,” he says gleefully. “Yes, I do write polemics. I write antiestablishment rants. I make no claim at all to be writing objective history. Why I object to history books for adults is that they do claim to be objective.

“Horrible Histories are, from start to finish, a rant against the privileged,” he continues, warming to his theme. “All the posh people, the lords and the nobles, and their lackies, the police, the army and the teachers who purvey what the lords want — they are the enemy. And what makes me especially angry, because I’m not a historian, is when I start to study history and I find out the way in which common people have been manipulated, beaten, bullied and abused down the ages. Someone needs to stand up for them.”

Despite the platform that Horrible Histories has given him, Deary is more than a little grumpy about his strong association with the books. Why? Because the books are more famous than he is. “Horrible Histories is of very little interest to me because I don’t own the brand,” he says, adding that while people have heard of the books, they often haven’t heard of him. “The brand is stronger than me.”

The series began back in the early 1990s when Deary, an actor who had moved into writing children’s books, was commissioned to write a Father Christmas joke book. It sold well, so the publisher (Scholastic) asked him to write a history joke book.

Scholastic then asked Deary to add some interesting facts to the jokes. “When I started to look at the facts, I realised that they were more interesting than the jokes. So instead of a joke book with facts, you had a fact book with jokes. Horrible Histories was born.”

The first two books, Terrible Tudors and Awesome Egyptians, were written to tie in with the National Curriculum (ironic, as Deary hates conventional education). They were moderately successful and more books were commissioned. But it wasn’t until 1995 that they really took off, with Blitzed Brits promoted to tie in with the anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

More than 20 million copies of the books have now been sold worldwide, and children (including my own) can’t get enough of them. Deary has become one of the most popular living authors in the UK and Scholastic is even planning a Horrible Histories virtual online world for next year.

But Deary seems quite under-whelmed by his achievements. “Children’s authors are held in such low esteem, it drags me down,” he says. “You meet strangers and they ask, ‘What do you do?’ You say ‘I’m a writer’ and they reply, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. Then you tell them you’re a children’s writer — that’s way down the list. And you say ‘my best-known books are non-fiction’. Then you’re somewhere off the bottom of the scale!”

There’s more to Deary than Horrible Histories — which helps to explain the apparent chip on his shoulder. He clearly loved his acting career and has written more than 150 other books — their relatively low profile is an obvious irritation.

He’s also still angry about his education (he says that he hated school and “school hated me”) and resents that his talent as a writer wasn’t nurtured or encouraged. He didn’t go to university (one of the first things he says to me is that he doesn’t have a degree), instead spending a year working for the Electricity Board and then attending drama college. He still loves acting, but admits with a sigh: “I’m not as good an actor as I am a writer.”

Deary’s wife used to be a teacher, and before his writing career took off, he taught drama and English. So it may come as a surprise to find just how much he fumes at the thought that his books might now be recommended by educators. “If my books appear in schools, I get tainted,” he says passionately. “I don’t want to be tarred by schools. I want to be outside the system. I went to school. I was beaten, bullied and abused, by the teachers, not the pupils. I learnt nothing worth learning.”

He thinks that education should change radically, and schools should be closed down. “You give me the £50 billion that we put into the so-called education system and I will come up with an alternative.”

Deary now has a new agent and is keen to turn his back on Horrible Histories and other children’s books. He has already written a few more Horrible Histories (which are yet to be published), but has no plans for any more. His aim is to “diversify” and write adult fiction instead.

“I’m 64 years old. I don’t want to be 74 and still churning out the same thing. It’s time for a new career direction,” he says. “I never wanted to write any in the first place.”

Horrible histories and horrible historians!

I have been a bit lax about posting my articles on here - partly because I post so often on School Gate

But I have had a few pieces of interest in the paper recently....

Firstly, I had a news piece and interview with Terry Deary (author of Horrible Histories) which was great fun. I also did a live chat with him on the blog, which I really enjoyed, partly because so many children came along. You can read it again on the link I've just popped in.

Here's the news story -

Or you can read it below....

Historians are seedy and horrible, says Terry Deary, children’s author

Sarah Ebner
He owes his success to history, but the author Terry Deary has described historians as “seedy and devious”.

The bestselling writer of the Horrible Histories series added that all historians were out to “make a name for themselves”, denied that his books were history books at all and even started a spat with Niall Ferguson, one of Britain’s best-known historians.

“Historians are nearly as seedy and devious as politicians,” Deary, 64, said. “They pick on a particular angle and select the facts to prove their case and make a name for themselves ... They don’t write objective history.”

Deary — whose books have sold more than 20 million copies — does not like any historians. “Eventually you can see through them all,” he said. “They all come with a twist.” However, he reserved his greatest ire for Ferguson, the former Oxford historian who now lectures at Harvard University.

“Obnoxious people like Niall Ferguson write a book to prove that the British Empire was a good thing,” Deary said. “He’s a deeply offensive right-wing man who uses history to get across a political point.”

In response, Ferguson admitted to surprise that Deary was commenting on his work. “It’s a little like asking Rory Bremner for his opinion on George Osborne’s spending cuts or Sacha Baron Cohen to review Simon Schama’s forthcoming history of the Jews,” he said. “I have read some of the Horrible Histories to my children, along with Harry Potter, The Hobbit and many other children’s books. They’re quite funny. And so is this.”

“You say that Terry Deary thinks my book Empire had ‘a political point’. I am not sure what that means. The book argued that there were benefits as well as costs to the British Empire, which is not a political point but a historical judgment. Terry Deary says that he ‘wants to be anti-Establishment’. That sounds more like someone who is trying to get across a political point.”

The Horrible Histories series relates historical events in a way that attracts children — with blood and gore. However, Deary (who got a D in his history A level) said he did not write “history books”, but “about people”. He added that his aim was to “counteract the lies” told by teachers.

“For example, when I went to school, I was told Henry VIII was a bit cruel but that he was a good king because he was strong. That’s what I believed but it’s utter, utter evil to promote that idea. He was a psychopath who should never have been able to rule the country. And that is what the system allows.”

Historians cannot decide whether to be grateful that Deary has attracted more children to the study of history, or angry at his attitude towards them.

“Does this man go to the archive, or is he just a parasite on historians?” asked David Starkey, an expert on Henry VIII. “He does make a real point about a certain type of history, which is designed to put forward a case, but what on earth does ‘objective’ mean? In the reign of Henry VIII, for example, the main archive alone is 244 volumes of about 800 closely written pages each. That’s three million facts, and the historian has to select from them.”

Paula Kitching, of the Historical Association, said: “We don’t want to throw insults backwards and forwards. But I’m surprised that he wants to attack history. There are many different kinds of historians out there and, whether he likes it or not, he’s falling into that category himself now.”

Meanwhile, Catharine Edwards, Professor of Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London, said that children “absolutely loved” the books. “If it takes toilets to get them interested in history, that’s fine. It’s the most gruesome side of things which attracts the young.”

Deary admitted that he was disappointed to be so closely linked to the Horrible Histories series, because he does not own the brand. He is also keen to turn his back on children’s books and move on to adult fiction. “It’s time for a new career direction,” he said.

Terry Deary will be taking part in a live chat on the Times education blog, School Gate, on Tuesday June 1 at noon.

Horrible histories tour

· During Roman feasts, guests could eat so much that they had to be sick, and a special room was set aside for them called a vomitorium. They would then go back into the dining room to continue eating

· Cures for the plague included shaving a chicken’s bottom and strapping it to the plague sore

· Elizabeth I did not want to have her rotten teeth removed. To show her how easy and painless it was, the Bishop of London had one of his own teeth taken out while she watched

· James I picked his nose and never washed his hands

· Queen Victoria’s son-in-law would have his collection of glass eyes delivered to him at dinner parties

· In the First World War soldiers were told to urinate on a handkerchief and tie it round their face to protect them from a gas attack