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Literacy: What’s Your Purpose?

The answer to the question might seem rather obvious, to enable pupils to read & write.  I have no disagreement with that.  However, the choice about what children read and who decides is value-laden.  This challenge was laid bare to us when we started looking at developing a literary canon across the small cross phase multi academy trust, which I led until my retirement in December 2019.  What fifty books should all children, who attended the academies in the trust, read between the ages of 4 to 14?

When we reviewed the books read by pupils it revealed a very limited range.  Their diet consisted mainly of books by Dahl, Walliams and Morpurgo.  However, what took me by greater surprise was whether pupils were reading in class with their teacher at all. What I thought would be a given, in every primary classroom, was in fact hugely variable. A survey by Teacher Tapp in November 2018 makes similar findings – “Do you [the teacher] read a book aloud to your class?”  The drop off in reading “every day” after Reception is quite staggering and not what I had expected.

(Source: Teacher Tapp, 2018)

After much discussion, the canon we decided on across our trust’s two primary academies is currently:

Year 1: The Storm Whale; What the Ladybird Heard; After the Fall; Tidy; Winnie and Wilbur in Winter; Dave the Lonely Monster; The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch; The Squirrels Who Squabbled.

Year 2: Jumanji; Aesop’s Funky Fables; The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark; Fantastic Mr Fox; The Dragonsitter; The Worst Witch.

Year 3: The Hodgeheg; Ice Palace; Woof!; The Iron Man; The Butterfly Lion.

Year 4: The Firework-Maker’s Daughter; Perry Angel’s Suitcase; The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler; Emil and the Detectives; The Legend of Podkin One-Ear.

Year 5: Journey to Jo’burg; The Midnight Fox; Wonder; Five Children and It; Millions.

Year 6: Holes; Skellig; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Cogheart; A Monster Calls; A Little History of the World (illustrated, non-fiction).

Each class also reads a selection of non-fiction texts, using either the DK First Children’s Encyclopedia or the DK Children’s Illustrated Encyclopedia

In making decisions about what children should read and who decides we were invariably guided by our beliefs about why we educate.  This greater purpose is often developed, consciously or unconsciously, around four main philosophies of education (Wiliam, 2013):

1.  Cultural transmission seeks to pass on “the best which has been thought and said” (Matthew Arnold). The focus is almost exclusively on knowledge acquisition and the development of the intellect.   This would consist of both cultural literacy along with a more specialist curriculum focused on disciplinary and subject knowledge.

2.  Personal empowerment seeks to develop the potential of the child. A balance is needed between the acquisition of skills and knowledge, both of which need to be applied. Underpinning this is the desire to “allow young people to take greater control of their own lives” (Wiliam, 2013). 

3.  Preparation for work focuses is on problem solving and real-world experiences. As more educated workers are more productive, there is a correlation between educational achievement and economic prosperity.

4.  Preparation for citizenship seeks to build communities and overcome social disadvantage.  This focuses on the school’s context and seeks to support the development of social capital within families and the local community.

Cultural transmission is the predominant philosophy that underpinned Ofsted’s new inspection framework.  Building cultural capital and alterations in long term memory are the order of the day.  Hirsch (1988) defines cultural knowledge as that possessed by the “common reader”.

In echoes of Arnold, Hirsch’s concern is that although pupils may know a great deal of knowledge, it is narrowly confined to their own generation and context. Their embodied cultural capital is derived too much from their peer group, community or family, and too little from their education. Hirsch addresses this balancing act between personal and shared culture, saying of the latter: “ … it excludes nobody; it cuts across generations and social groups and classes; it is not usually one’s first culture, but it should be everyone’s second, existing as it does beyond the narrow spheres of family, neighbourhood and religion.”  Hirsch coordinated a list of approximately 5,000 words, sayings, people and dates that form the lexicon of a literate person.  He believes that it is the primary responsibility of a school to teach this lexicon.

Hirsch’s view would clash somewhat with those of Paolo Freire.  Freire’s writings and ideas are heavily associated with personal empowerment in education.  He sees the main purpose of education is to give people greater control over their lives.  That is, they become liberated, as opposed to oppressed, and have the ability to act without unnecessary limitations.  He frames this sense of empowerment in the term subjectification – subjects know & act whereas objects are known & acted on.  He challenges what he calls the “Banking Concept of Education” where education becomes an act of depositing with pupils having no say in what is deposited nor how. 

Freire sees oppression as the major barrier to empowerment – a ruling elite superimposing their reality and culture on the poor, in order to maintain a social order that disproportionately benefits the powerful.  A limited perspective, controlling from a position of privilege leading to discrimination has had a negative impact on people of different gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or poverty.  Interestingly Freire’s work may well come back into significant focus alongside the Black Lives Matter Campaign which is shining a light on many areas of inequality within society. 

There will never be universal agreement about which 30 books every child should read while at primary school. Even the idea is contentious. In developing a literary canon, a school can emphasise the local, national or the international, as it believes appropriate. The books can be biased towards deepening an understanding of its own community or different communities.  How do you decide what books children should read?

This blog post is taken from Educating with Purpose, available from John Catt Ltd and Amazon


Freire, P. (2017) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Classics (the original translation into English was published in 1970)

Hirsch Jr, E.D. (1988) Cultural Literacy, New York: Vintage Books

Teacher Tapp. (2018) “What Teacher Tapped this week #60 – 19th November 2018”, Teacher Tapp, tinyurl.com/y73qkcm6

Wiliam, D. (2013) Redesigning Schooling: Principled Curriculum Design, SSAT, tinyurl.com/y9eeb4eu



One thought on “Literacy: What’s Your Purpose?

  1. A really challenging and thought provoking blog which will no doubt prompt some discussion about our reading curriculum and content choices. I suspect it will lead to healthy debate. Thank you for sharing.

    Posted by Marc Cooper | September 9, 2020, 5:21 am

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