See Sally run ... for the door

Children tumble into reading at the Children's Book Festival in Melbourne this year.
Children tumble into reading at the Children's Book Festival in Melbourne this year.

For decades, schoolchildren have been inducted into the world of reading with the help of catch phrases like "see Spot run".

Now a leading Australian reading scholar has questioned the effectiveness of the graded reader, which has formed the backbone of many early reading programs, and called on teachers to switch to quality picture books.

Robyn Ewing, a professor of teacher education and arts at the University of Sydney, said most children were quick to turn off books which were structured solely to decode a text and had no real narrative purpose or storyline. She had "a real problem" with readers of the ilk of See Spot Run.

Professor Ewing was last week presented the prestigious Lady Cutler Award by the Children's Book Council of Australia NSW for her support of Australian children's literature. As a mentor of teachers, Professor Ewing is also a critic of the pressure placed on teachers to have their classes master reading basics by the end of kindergarten.

"There was never any pressure on me as a kindergarten teacher to have every child reading by age six and yet now if children are not reading by the end of kindergarten there is such fear and anxiety," she said.

The problem lay in a society which conflated "learning to read with intelligence" when in many parts of Europe and Scandinavia reading was not intensively taught until age seven. "Parents have the most important job in the world and yet there is a paucity of education for parents."

Humorous lightweight children's fiction such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series were great beginner texts, but: "I see the role of the parent and teacher to open up other kind of reading experiences the child perhaps wouldn't get to on their own.

"It's not a case of that's a bad book and this is a good book, it's about having the ability to appreciate different kinds of books and reading for different kinds of pleasure and purpose.

"At every level it's really important for texts to be authentic, relevant and meaningful.I'm really passionate about using real books, real quality literature, not levelled or reading scheme books. If a book is totally contrived and written with a very limited vocabulary, as a lot of early readers are, they actually don't make sense beyond the sentence level, and they don't interest kids. If a book doesn't make sense or encourage them to think beyond the text itself then they will ask, 'What's the point?' "

Dyan Blacklock, a former school librarian and the publisher of Omnibus Books, an imprint of Scholastic Australia, agreed children hungered for real books that modelled a novel, "not classroom readers that marked them out as babies".

"At age six or seven we want to feel more grown up, but we don't have all the skills we require," she said.

"When we read a story we want everyone to be a winner. We like families to be happy, funny dogs make us laugh and no story should be too scary.

"What we read at six or seven must meet those very clear criteria. Dick and Dora just won't cut it."

This story See Sally run ... for the door first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.