Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Power of Words: GP Taylor

I just had to post this regarding one of my favorite authors and online buddy, GP Taylor (he's such a gentleman). Tea and crumpets anyone? In any case, The First Escape (The Dopple Ganger Chronicles) simply is awesome. Even my son took a look at it, and that's quite an accomplishment. The book is comic-book style, but not quite, if you know what I mean. It just has a ton of illustrations, which should attract our boy readers. In any case, perhaps I could get the son to write up a quick review, in between beating up his drums and "hanging" with his friends. Here's the latest on GP.

Power of words: How a children's writer is turning boys into bookworms with his book The Dopple Ganger Chronicles.

The writer GP Taylor is converting pupils to reading by telling them stories. It's a far cry from teaching to the test – and is producing some remarkable results. Warwick Mansell sees for himself

'Who wants to hear a real ghost story?" Scores of young hands leap up in anticipation at the prospect of some more wickedly inventive narrative from a rather unusual school visitor.

Standing at the front of the assembly hall is a middle-aged man in a pink shirt who is attempting to convince his audience of the power of storytelling, of the value of being a "book-aholic" and of the "transformative" effect of reading for pleasure.

As a complicated and vividly-rendered tale ensues, involving an old lady, a "ghost" which makes itself known to her through a series of groaning noises every night at 6pm and, it eventually turns out, a faulty central heating system, it is clear he is winning the battle.

The speaker is Graham Taylor, better known as G P Taylor, the one-time vicar turned multi-million selling author of fantasy novels including Shadowmancer, who is on one of more than 150 visits to primary schools this year, for which he does not charge.

The school, St Peter's Church of England primary in Ashton-under-Lyne, outside Manchester, sees Mr Taylor's visit – his second in 18 months – as central to a project designed to get all its pupils, and hitherto reluctant boys in particular, to start reading for pleasure. The school, which serves a tough area and has high numbers of children with special needs, also runs a "Reading Champions" scheme, in which older boys and girls read to younger pupils. It frees up 20 minutes each day for "Everybody Reading in Class" time, in which children and teachers read whatever they like. And each day also features time for verbal storytelling.

The author's visit may be part of a comeback for the encouragement of the reading of whole books among children. Critics say this has suffered in recent years under the triple assault of the Government's national literacy strategy, which has been accused of focusing on teaching reading mainly through extracts of books, the pressures of drilling pupils to pass tests and the competing attractions of television and computer games.

Reading for pleasure has been acknowledged as a problem in English primary schools since 2003, when an international survey found England near the top globally in reading test results, but towards the bottom when measuring the enjoyment they found in books. A further study, in 2006, found only 28 per cent of English children reporting reading weekly for pleasure, compared to an international average of 40 per cent.

Many put this down to the literacy strategy, introduced in 1998, which emphasized the teaching of reading and writing as the acquisition of discrete skills – such as word decoding, analysing sentence structure, spelling and grammar – without actually getting pupils wanting to read in the first place. The emphasis on phonics teaching, promoted particularly hard by ministers since a review in 2006, is also accused by critics of potentially marginalising reading for understanding.

Professor Teresa Cremin, president of the United Kingdom Literacy Association, says that, at its worst, the strategy presented children with extracts of literature mainly as a tool for teaching literacy. She says: "Children were shown a text and asked to find the adverbial clause, or asked what complex sentences they could find in a paragraph. This approach can get a bit farcical."

Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, says: "There was an overemphasis on skills and an underemphasis on the reason why you would read. Reading for pleasure suffered."

Staff at St Peter's say the new literacy strategy, which was revised in 2007, puts a fresh emphasis on reading for pleasure and that this may bring about a change in schools' priorities. But they still face difficulties in deciding to foster interest in reading for pleasure.

Sue Palmer, a former primary head and author, says that it will remain hard for teachers to move away from favouring the repetitive drilling of pupils in reading skills, over more creative approaches, when schools are being judged solely on Sats results.

Professor Cremin agrees. She says: "The pressure to achieve the level fours and level fives in tests is so great that teachers have felt that there is not the time to engage in reading for pleasure".

However, Professor Cremin says there are signs of a backlash. Authors now appear increasingly sought-after in schools, with many other writers including Alan Gibbons and Michael Rosen also racking up hundreds of visits to primaries each year. The National Literacy Trust now has 5,000 schools, including St Peter's, signed up to its Government-funded "Reading Connects" scheme, which aims to develop whole-school approaches to the promotion of reading.

Mr Gibbons – who estimates that around one in 10 schools now invites authors in on visits – himself has set up a "Campaign for the Book", which is promoting reading for pleasure, while the Arts Council is to launch a "Creative Reading Charter" in the autumn.

And, last month, Professor Cremin presented research at a seminar at the Department for Children, Schools and Families which showed how pupils' reading had been fostered, in schools in five local authorities, by a project which had aimed to increased teachers' own understanding and use of children's literature.

Staff at St Peter's, who have been enthusiastically backed by Tameside local authority, believe its approach has had a big effect on Sats scores. Last summer, 83 per cent of pupils gained their expected level, well ahead of the school's 43 per cent target, says Eileen Anderson, its literacy coordinator. But the gains appear to go far beyond this.

Linda Bardsley, the head teacher, says the author's first visit had been the catalyst for a change in attitudes to reading among his audience. "What a joy it was when the children in year six discussed his books with him; a group of boys who normally played football at lunch time sat reading Graham's books; children would read snatches of their books in between lessons, and so on."

Eileen Anderson says: "Before we got going with this, we looked at things and could see that reading was a challenge in our school. We just thought doing more extracts and teaching to the test was going to switch them off even more. We felt we had no option but to go down this route and it is paying off fantastically."

Hasnat, also aged 10, is similarly enthusiastic, and appears to have risen to the author's challenge. "I want to be a bookworm," he says.

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