Stories help us make sense of the world

Primary school children are no longer reading entire books with their teachers, according to an independent poll for the educational publisher Heinemann. One in eight have never read an entire story in class; instead they study extracts published in worksheet form. The fear of teachers and parents is that children are becoming less interested in reading overall.

Poet and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen was brought in yesterday by BBC Radio 4’s PM programme to comment on the report. Rosen, who is a highly respected pedagogue as well as children’s writer, describes teachers today as living in “worksheet hell”. Rather than read whole stories with their students, they now use short extracts, quizzing the children in order to help them pass their standard assessment tests:

“We’re drilling them with worksheets as we think it’ll help them succeed, help them pass.”

I have to say that worksheet hell and teaching to the test have in recent years infected pretty much all sectors of education, including at university degree level.

So why is the failure to read whole stories a bad thing, and who is to blame? It’s not the fault of teachers, says Rosen. They are forced to teach to the test, and have told him how unhappy they are with this. In not reading entire stories in class, children are missing out:

“They’re missing out on the incredible, brilliant wisdom of the world we have encapsulated in whole stories. The wonderful thing about stories is that you marry ideas and feeling in a sequence of events. Feelings or fear, of anger, of jealousy are wrapped up in characters, in creatures and beings, that we can understand. And what happens to them is that we follow them. In a sense they kind of hold our hands, and take us through disasters and triumphs. And we figure out who they are, and who we are. Nothing else does this.”

Rosen went on to read Ovid’s “Echo and Narcissus”, and masterful it was too.