Exploring Children′s Literature
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Exploring Children′s Literature

Reading for Knowledge, Understanding and Pleasure

Nikki Gamble

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eBook - ePub

Exploring Children′s Literature

Reading for Knowledge, Understanding and Pleasure

Nikki Gamble

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About This Book

Having a good working knowledge of children?s literature is vital for primary teachers; the best way to develop switched-on young readers is to ensure they get access to high-quality age-appropriate material that engages and inspires them. This book explores the rich and varied world of children?s literature and how it can be used in teaching to promote reading for pleasure and create lifelong readers. This new edition has been completely updated to include: - 5 brand new chapters covering Knowledge & skills, Classics, Illustrated fiction & graphic novels, Non-fiction, and Humour
- New expert voice features providing commentaries from educators, literary experts and authors such as Lucy Worsley
- Up to date book lists featuring recent and more diverse literature and authors
- New practical activities and case studies show casing children?s books and how to use them in the classroom
- Further reading links to take students further

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Year
2019
ISBN
9781526451255

Part I: Children’s Literature and Reading: What Counts as Knowledge?

Chapter 1: Knowledge and Skills: The Contested Space

In this chapter you will
  • learn about the competing arguments surrounding the place of knowledge and skills in the curriculum
  • consider the implications of this debate for text selection and teaching reading.

An invitation to journey together

This book is not a book about the teaching of reading, at least not in the sense of learning how to read words. However, it is a book about reading and how children are supported to become readers. At its core is an assertion that the teachers need to be knowledgeable about books and to understand how they can effectively deploy their knowledge through their teaching.
The journeys that we take through our reading lives have the potential to be among the most powerful and rewarding. Through the course of this book you will be invited to reflect on your personal reading journey, to consider what has formed the reader you are today and to think about where that journey might take you in the future. You will be asked to think about the implications of your discoveries for the children that you teach. Each journey is unique, and that is one of the delights of discovery because by sharing our reading journeys, we are sharing something about ourselves. My suggestion is that, where possible, you should discuss your reflections on the exercises and activities in this book with a friend or colleague. When we listen to others talk about their reading, we connect and come to know each other a little better. There are no good journeys or bad journeys, they are just different, and it is important to value what our colleagues and children offer, as the differences are opportunities for learning. And on the journey through this book, I will share vignettes from my own reading history. We start our journey by considering the importance of teacher subject knowledge.

Cultural and critical literacies: the arguments for knowledge and skills

The first edition of Exploring Children’s Literature was published over 15 years ago. At that time the National Literacy Strategy had been recently implemented in England. One of the effects, whether intentional or not, was a general move towards teaching with extracts, rather than providing the experience of reading full texts. My co-author, Sally Yates, and I were both convening children’s literature courses in initial teacher education and at Masters level for practising teachers and were concerned about the potential devaluing of these courses, as well as the loss of teacher knowledge about books. We were writing from a conviction that deep subject knowledge of language and literature provides a foundation for effective teaching and learning, and that teaching with extracts militated against that subject knowledge.
We were also committed to the view that it is not only what you teach but also how you teach that makes a difference. Our choice of verb, ‘exploring’, suggested to us an engagement in which teachers and learners are active in the process of making meaning – a dialogic rather than a monologic process where meanings are not fixed, but are open to interpretation through discussion and the application of critical skills. It is an approach that we applied to the book, inviting readers to reflect on their own experiences and how the knowledge acquired through reading connected with their own understanding.
We were also making a case for children to be supported in developing agency with regard to their reading choices and for opportunities for sustained, independent, volitional reading to be an essential part of the school day. Learning to read is not just about acquiring reading skills – readers become readers with practice and experience.
At the point of writing this fourth edition of Exploring Children’s Literature, you may feel that some of those arguments have been won. Certainly, reading for pleasure and its import for both personal fulfilment and academic achievement has been a hot topic in education in recent years. The National Curricula for the United Kingdom mention reading for enjoyment in one way or another, though the emphases differ. In England, a frequently cited quotation in the English programme of study states: ‘All pupils must be encouraged to read widely across both fiction and non-fiction to develop their knowledge of themselves and the world they live in, to establish an appreciation and love of reading, and to gain knowledge across the curriculum. Reading widely and often increases pupils’ vocabulary because they encounter words they would rarely hear or use in everyday speech. Reading also feeds pupils’ imagination and opens up a treasure house of wonder and joy for curious young minds’ (DfE, 2014).
However, in spite of the lofty sentiments dressed up in fustian language, the reality is the oppressive presence of a testing regime that pulls in the opposite direction. Fortunately, teachers are notoriously inventive and practical, and find ways to navigate between the competing demands, but for some the challenges make it harder to focus on the real purposes for reading.
The term ‘enjoyment’ features in the curriculum for Northern Ireland, albeit following the phrasing to ‘engage in sustained, independent and silent reading’ as though the enjoyment is necessarily contingent upon solitary reading rather than something more fundamental to underpin the curriculum (CCEA, 2014).
The Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland stands out as putting enjoyment at the head of its list of experiences for children, specifying that ‘within a motivating and challenging environment’ children are to develop an awareness of the relevance of texts in their lives (Education Scotland, n.d.).
There are many excellent resources and initiatives for teachers to tap into to support the development of reading for pleasure, some of which I will be highlighting in this book. Nevertheless, it seems that while the arguments for reading for pleasure have been made persuasively and that account has been taken of them at a policy level, there is still some way to go before there is a universal commitment and embedding of practices that put reading for pleasure and wider reading at the fore.
Meanwhile, in the current climate, a policy debate is raging (not for the first time) about a perceived dichotomy between a skills-based curriculum and a ‘traditional’ knowledge-based curriculum. Nick Gibb (2017), the current Minister of State for School Standards in England, drawing on the work of E. D. Hirsch, dismisses the design of the previous iteration of the national curriculum: ‘In 2007, the previous government launched a national curriculum that had been stripped of knowledge content in favour of skills.’ He goes on to argue that ‘returning to a traditional, academic curriculum built on shared knowledge is the best way to achieve social justice in society’ and that ‘building cultural capital’ is the most effective way of closing the attainment gap (Gibb, 2017).
The concept of cultural capital is long-standing, but is most closely associated with Marxist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984) who argued that each class has a cultural framework and set of assumptions about what constitutes good and bad taste. These assumptions influence the places we visit, the music we listen to and the books we read: middle classes place more value on reading non-fiction and classical literature than popular literature.
An educator and literary critic, Hirsch uses the term ‘cultural literacy’ (1987) to describe the acquisition of this common knowledge to which learners should aspire. Putting his ideas into practice, Hirsch established the Core Knowledge Foundation in the US and developed the Core Knowledge Sequence (1990), a teaching programme for children from kindergarten through to grade 8. More recently in Why Knowledge Matters (2016), Hirsch has advanced a treatise for change, arguing against individualism and differentiation. Furthermore, he has asserted that a curriculum which is based around teaching discrete skills is essentially bankrupt. He cites The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (2006): ‘Research clearly rejects the classical views on human cognition in which general abilities such as learning, reasoning, problem solving and concept formation correspond to capacities and abilities that can be studied independently of the content domains’ (Hirsch, 2016: 13). As such, Hirsch claims, skills are domain specific and it is therefore more accurate to talk about expertise rather than skills.
With regard to reading, the knowledge-based curriculum puts literature at the heart of learning and takes a strong position on the selection of texts that young readers should encounter. Hirsch’s ideas follow in the tradition of Matthew Arnold (1869) who argued for the working class to have access to ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’. Arnold believed that reading great literature was the means by which the working class could converse as equals with the middle class and rise through the ranks. It is a view that has been criticized by some as elitist, but finds support from Gibb: ‘a well taught knowledge-rich education is a driver of true meritocracy’ (Gibb, 2017). And it echoes through the writing of some educators such as Doug Lemov, who seeking to revisit the way reading is taught states, ‘what students read shapes how well they learn to read’ (2016: 16).

Some words on the concept of literature

It’s a pigeon step from these arguments to an assertion that literature and children’s literature are loaded with more value than other kinds of reading such as popular fiction or ephemera such as comics.
It may be helpful to take a short detour and consider how the term literature is used. A broad definition includes all written and spoken material: prose (fiction and non-fiction), drama or poetry. The term is sometimes used to describe spoken genres from the oral tradition such as epic, legend, myth, ballad and folk tale, as well as speeches such as Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ and Winston Churchill’s ‘Fight them on the beaches’, which are often studied for their rhetorical technique. However, other definitions focus on distinctive qualities such as fictionality, special use of language, lack of pragmatic function and the facility to arouse different levels of interpretation.
Linguist Roman Jakobson (1960) highlighted the poetic function of literary texts. He argued that literature draws attention to the language it utilizes, making everyday words seem fresh and original. However, non-literary texts such as newspaper headlines, clever adverts and menu descriptions also use figurative language, puns, rhyme or alliteration to elicit emotional responses.
It is sometimes asserted that texts such as newspaper articles, gardening manuals and recipe books have a pragmatic function while literary texts may not have an intended purpose; indeed the writer may not have had a particular audience in mind when writing. The role of the reader needs to be taken into account when we consider purpose and we have to account for individual differences. Some people will read fictional texts because they are interested in the factual basis: for example, they may read Beverley Naidoo’s Burn My Heart because they want to understand something of the history of the Mau Mau. Others may find that by reading novels they have an increased understanding of human motivation and behaviour that allows them to deal with day-to-day problems. Conversely, I enjoy reading cookery writers like Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson as much for their delicious descriptions of food and the stories behind their recipes as for the instructions on how to prepare a meal. What distinguishes a Nigel Slater cookery book from Good Housekeeping is the evidence of an engaging personal voice in the writing. It is as though Nigel Slater cares so much about his food that he has to communicate it in person to me. And I respond by lingering over the words, enjoying them as much as the anticipation of the edible outcome. As Alvarez puts it:
Real literature is about something else entirely and it’s immune to speed reading. That is, it’s not about information, although you may gather information along the way. It’s not even about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures. Imaginative literature is about listening to a voice. When you read a novel the voice is telling you a story; when you read a poem … it’s usually talking about what its owner is feeling; but neither the medium nor the message is the point. The point is that the voice is unlike any other you have ever heard and it is speaking directly to you. (2005: 15)
A further consideration is the interpretive element of reading literature. So while we expect a recipe to create exactly the result we are expecting no matter who is doing the cooking, a literary text might be interpreted in different ways by different readers.
It is evident that any description of what constitutes literature is problematic. Nevertheless, we can acknowledge that some texts offer more for readers to reflect upon: they say interesting things and say them in interesting ways. A central tenet of this book is that it is for teachers to choose with care texts to read with and to young readers, offering those that provide challenge in content, form and language. However, we do not take the elitist position that children should only read books that are considered by adults to be ‘good for them’. Just as adults may choose a quick light read or relax by watching an intellectually undemanding reality programme on television, so children will enjoy returning to favourite texts, reading books in series or reading an action-centred story. These books may well be the ones that get them ‘hooked on reading’ and they should not be discouraged from reading them. However, as teachers we will want to present other possibilities and introduce books that deal with powerful themes in ways that engage, provoke and stimulate the imagination.
Activity 1.1
Image 1

What is literature?

In your journal make some notes about the concept of literature. How useful for teachers is the distinction between literary and non-literary texts?

Literature and social justice

Martin Luther King (1947) also advocated giving young people access to the best thinking. For King, there was a moral imperative: ‘The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race...

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