Monday, February 07, 2011

On sending kids to school dressed as fictional characters

Tracey Thorn was tweeting this morning about how irritating she finds the fashion for schools encouraging children to come dressed as fictional characters in the hope that this will encourage them to read. My wife, who's a teacher, gets equally tense when this day rolls around in her school calendar. It's nothing to do with reading. Literacy, possibly, but not reading.

For years now schools have been busting a gut to externalise the reading experience. They pretend that reading's exciting in the same way that games are exciting. It's not. There is no indication that covering the classroom walls with pictures of fictional characters is likely to make children want to go in a corner, shut themselves off from human society and lose themselves in the book that the character came from. I'm not sure there's any connection. It seems to me that the two experiences are entirely different. One is social. The other is solitary. One is easy. The other is quite hard. It's not like listening to a story. It's more like telling yourself a story. There is a whole world of difference between reading Tolkien and watching some expensive re-enactment of its most action-packed moments. Reading is hard.

The really hard thing about reading is starting. It involves deciding that there is nothing else you could be doing with your time that is better than lowering yourself into a book. This applies whether you're nine or ninety. It applies to you this evening as you decide to spend an hour watching some adequate TV programme rather than turning it off and reading that book that you know is considerably more than adequate.


  1. 'Adequate' TV can never create the characters our favourite novelists conjure out of thin air; and it's all about the characters as Sebastian Faulks keeps reminding us. Bond, Jeeves and Holmes get under your skin to the point that when the book is put down on the bedside table at night you begin your dreaming wondering what they're getting up to. Fleming, Wodehouse and Conan Doyle couldn't possibly have envisaged such longevity for their creations at the time of applying seat of pants to seat of chair.

  2. I feel the same way about museums. Everything has to be reduced to an interactive display to get the 'kids' interested - as if turning a handle to see how evolution works can compete with Grand Theft Auto.

    Middle class curators trying to encourage 'needful' working class children but really only appealing to middle class parents looking for somewhere to take the family at the weekend. When did museums become an extension of the school system?

    Surely part of the joy of learning is the reward for the effort.

  3. I watched the BBC's adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy at the weekend and thought how prescient Douglas Adams had been about a lot of things. Yesterday I went out and bought the books so that I could re-read them. (I've long since disposed of my original paperbacks).

    I don't know what this says about the 'dressing up as fictional characters encouraging reading debate', but like the main character Arthur Dent, I did spend an awful lot of time reading the first book in my dressing gown.

  4. >The really hard thing about reading is starting. It involves deciding that there is nothing else you could be doing with your time that is better than lowering yourself into a book.

    Or more importantly convincing those around you that you want to read a book. It always seems to me that people are programmed to interrupt you after about 3 pages.

    Most likely they think "Poor soul has got nothing better to do than read, I know I'll talk to him....

  5. ... and how telling about the usefulness (or otherwise) of these days that half the kids turn up dressed up as a character from the TV anyway....

  6. To be a contrarian here. Yes its a bit contrived but schools do a lot of work around the day thats more than just the dressing up. Writing book reviews, talking about authors, reading extracts and so on. Its also (in my house anyway) proves a useful excuse to talk about favourite books and characters, and overall encourage the idea of reading more. Even if he does turn up tomorrow as Harry Potter or James Bond or something . And perhaps you can scoff but the £1 book token etc does encourage many to purchase books this weekend as proven by the best seller lists. Whether they end up reading is another matter but to reduce the day to frustration that you have to provide some fancy dress outfit is rather missing the point.

  7. Is reading "hard"? I guess so if you don't really like it, in which case get to a basic standard and then do something you do like. It's a no more worthy media than any other. I don't have a problem with giving children an opportunity to discuss their favourite characters. The more silliness the better.

    My son's class had guinea pigs in school yesterday. We haven't been besieged with requests for a pet. Presumably that means it was a failure? Or maybe just having the experience is the point. It doesn't all have to lead to an easily testable educational goal.

  8. I forgot to make my most important point! Two things that motivated my boy to learn to read - so he could play Uno on my phone (finding New Game buttons and so forth) and reading subtitles on You've Been Framed. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it got him into it. Hes in reception class but all his reading books are from the class above. He consumes all forms of Star Wars media and goes to bed with a torch and his Star Wars Dictionary every night. Thats not great literature but he loves to read and thats driven by love of the characters, the story and the world - not aquisition of some supposedly difficult and boring skill.