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But it gets kids reading! Some thoughts on critical literacy

Goosebumps: Scary House; RL Stine

BUT IT GETS THEM READING!

I’ve used this phrase myself, but what does it actually mean? Or, more importantly, what do we mean when we say it?

It’s a phrase used to excuse what we perceive to be poor quality literature; to imply value in books that would otherwise be dismissed as pulpy, badly written or simply non-canon. It indicates snobbery; it is an apology to the self – a platitude to excuse fiction that doesn’t fit the value system we want to impart. It may not be morally improving, but at least it constitutes practice. But practice at what? Functional literacy – the level of reading comprehension and writing ability necessary to get by day-to-day – might be the go-to excuse. But is that really what we mean?

We want our children to be functionally literate because we want our adults to be functionally literate; because functional literacy is, well, useful. It’s difficult to operate in the world without being able to decipher the intricate squiggles on road signs, on food packaging, in instruction manuals. It’s useful to be able to write a shopping list, to sign our names. Functional literacy helps us apply for jobs and mortgages. It helps us navigate from A to B. The intricate cognitive processes by which we decipher the random marks on a page and assign them meaning are second nature to most of us; we read all the time, and we read without thinking about it. Read the rest of this entry

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What I learned about trends at 9.20 AM in WH Smith

Robert Cormier Heroes

This train station vendor of books – I refuse to call them booksellers – is a queer creature. Essentially news agents, they provide bleary-eyed commuters with their daily paper and weekly NME, Grazia or Take A Break and weary travellers with limp, underfilled sandwiches only marginally less overpriced than those for sale on the trains.

The WH Smith branch in which I find myself this bright Thursday morning has a large book section taking up just under half of the small train station concourse store. Their stock-in-trade is bestsellers – books with NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE emblazoned over the Hollywood-perfect cover photo. Gaudy yellow easy-peel stickers advertise three for £10 deals on every other title. TV tie-ins and pocket-sized dictionaries dominate the reference section, travel guides and pop psychology the non-fiction section.

Children’s titles are consigned to a corner. The shelves are messy and confused. Books in on the adult shelves are organised by genre and then alphabetically, with at one copy of most titles displayed cover-on, the better to entice the casual purchaser. Not so in the children’s section. There is no sense that I can see in the arrangement; tall and thin science and maths workbooks sit beside vampire romance fiction for the 11-16 crowd, written hastily to ride on the coat tails Stephenie Meyer’s odious Twilight series. CBeebies tie-ins jostle beside My First Encyclopaedia and Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE).  A Latin translation of A Bear Called Paddington, ordered by some over-eager assistant buyer, languishes dustily at the back.

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