Author visits in schools

on 28 October 2013. Posted in Books and Poetry

Helena Pielichaty on a campaign to promote reading for pleasure and the value of authors' visits to schools

In April 2011 the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group (CWIG) held a One Day Conference for its members. During the Q & A session, Annemarie Young voiced her concern that many teacher training colleges did not appear to have much in the way of reading for pleasure on their courses - the little time allotted to reading tended to concentrate on synthetic phonics. If newly trained teachers weren’t getting any advice on reading for pleasure, how could they be expected to encourage their pupils to read widely once they were in the classroom, Annemarie wondered.

Other delegates agreed, adding that it wasn’t just new teachers who weren’t aware of the wide range of children’s literature available but many experienced teachers, too. The rigidity of the English National Curriculum was given as one reason for teachers abandoning long-established practices, such as the class reader; Ofsted’s ‘expectations’ were another. I related my anecdote of the teacher who, when I asked why she didn’t have a class reader any more, replied: ‘Can you imagine what Ofsted would say if they caught me reading to my class?’ Caught – as if she were indulging in some deviant act!

After the conference CWIG and the Educational Writers Group (EWG) formed a Campaigns Group to look into this issue. Further research confirmed that within most PGCE courses, reading for pleasure was given a one hour slot, if that, leaving NQTs dependent on their mentors in schools for ideas and inspiration about books. However, a study by Teresa Cremin (2011) highlighted how narrow even established teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature was, with only 10% of those surveyed being able to name 6 poets or 6 illustrators , reiterating what had been said at the One Day Conference.Yet there is some excellent work going on in schools, especially in those with a designated school librarian.

 The campaigns group decided to campaign for three things:

  • A school library in every school
  • Greater emphasis on reading for pleasure on teacher training courses and for teachers in all stages of their careers to be supported through a range of initiatives
  • Schools’ use of author visits to be accredited by Ofsted

It was the third strand that led us to undertake a Survey on Author Visits. By providing evidence of the value of an author visit (and by ‘author’ we include poets, illustrators, non-fiction writers, storytellers etc) we hope to incentivise the 90% of schools who don’t have author visits (QCA 2008) to do so. This is not a case of children’s writers being self-serving; far from it - undertaking school visits disrupts an authors’ writing routine, jeopardises deadlines and can be extremely tiring. However, these negatives are more than offset by the positive outcomes they generate, as illustrated in this quotation from Dame Jacqueline Wilson, in the Society of Authors’ press release:

‘I’ve been to literally thousands of schools during my long writing career and I can honestly say that each and every visit was a joyous experience - definitely for me and hopefully for most of the children too! I’ve been to struggling schools where few of the children are keen readers, yet at the end of each session the students have been happily buying or borrowing books, totally enthused. I think author visits to schools are a fail-safe way of engaging with young readers and encouraging kids who aren’t keen on reading to give books another go. Nearly all major children’s authors have trekked round schools and talked about their books, making children laugh, squeal, sigh and clap spontaneously, understanding at last that reading can be hugely enjoyable.’

The writers’ experience is shared by the schools. The vast majority of respondents to the author survey cited author visits as ‘vital’ in encouraging reading for pleasure. This reason, from a secondary school librarian, was typical:

‘It is important to work on children's attitudes to reading (especially if they don't have reading role models at home). Unless children are enthusiastic about sharing stories and enjoy reading, then they're never going to make any advances with improving the reading skills which are necessary later to unlock the curriculum and ensure they fulfil their academic potential/ life-chances. A regular, properly funded and resourced programme of author visits throughout a child's school career can keep that enthusiasm alive and spur them on to read more and read better. With so many other distractions, reading needs to be 'live' for children and author events are a brilliant way of doing this.In a survey I carried out last year among pupils, most stated that the only authors they had ever met were those they had met in school. In order for the relationship between reader and writer to develop, school librarians, with access to both pupils and publishers, have to take on this organisation themselves.’

The timing of the Survey on Author Visits couldn’t be better. The revised English National Curriculum, due to be implemented in 2014, has a renewed emphasis on reading for pleasure. This should lead to teacher training courses incorporating these crucial changes into their modules. There are signs that some of Ofsted’s inspection teams are beginning to acknowledge the valuable role libraries and librarians play as well as crediting reading initiatives such as the Patron of Reading idea as ‘good practice’. If all this becomes the norm, more and more schools will be encouraged to follow suit.

What would be the outcome of a wholesale uptake of our recommendations? A well-stocked and well-used library in every school, with walls crammed full of book reviews and posters of authors children have actually met. Teachers brimming with ideas about books, being given time and training to pass on those ideas and pupils who, regardless of background and catchment area, see reading as a cool, fun thing to do. Then what would happen? Targets would go through the roof. Literacy rates would soar. We’d have a nation of readers.

Just imagine that.