The researcher’s tale: the YLG conference 2011 “Opening doors, the power of story” and its relevance to my research.

To begin at the beginning, I tell everyone that I am a children’s librarian, although I am currently not in a job with that title, in fact I am not in a job at all. I am in a state of “Pending” at the end of a three year PhD at Loughborough University (Department of Information Science) , thesis written and waiting for things to happen before I have a “Viva Voce” and informed if I am a doctor, or not, as the case may be. I call myself a children’s librarian because I worked with children for over 20 years, as a pre-school supervisor and as a teacher, before being qualified in librarianship. I spent so many years reading children’s books with children that I could not think of myself as any other sort of librarian. I developed a fascination about literacy while teaching children to read. I worked in a small village school and knew most children’s families when I noticed that some children took to reading without effort, while others with similar family backgrounds struggled. That thought made me wonder why there was such a discrepancy so I started to examine the nature of literacy and the best way to tailor school reading schemes to fit children’s learning styles. Then the National Literacy Strategy happened and my working life moved on to supporting children in Secondary school.

My curiosity about the stimulation of literacy resurfaced while I was working as a library assistant on a children’s mobile library, where I began to feel that I was inspiring literacy more effectively than when I had taught the National Literacy Strategy. I wanted to investigate that feeling and corroborate whether the children’s mobile library’s mission statement of “spreading the love of books” was actually true. So, when the opportunity arose, I had just the topic to research for a PhD, to answer the question “Do children’s mobile libraries enhance literacy?” I will answer that question, but not just yet. As an awardee of a Wendy Drewett bursary to the 2011 YLG conference, I want to discuss what I learnt at that year’s conference and why it is relevant to my research.

I was overwhelmed by the opening speech from Baroness Greenfield who explained the way that the human brain develops and how that development is affected by the environment of the child. Although I knew that babies are born with a jumble of neurons, I did not realise that these brain nerve cells link up in unique ways for each individual. The brain of each human individual is therefore like a fingerprint, no two are the same. Discovering that fact made sense of other research I have read. I have been studying the way that children learn to read for the past 12 or so years and all the research that I have found concludes that there is no one way that children learn to read, because there is no one organ for reading, or no special “Reading” part of the brain. Each child’s brain works out for itself which neurons to fire to learn the complex skill of understanding written language. As Baroness Greenfield explained, it is the specific environment in which a child grows up that primes its neurons to connect in ways to respond to their environment. Speech is perhaps a good analogy for this, children born in Britain grow up to speak and understand English, but children who grow up in Russia speak Russian. The babies learn the language that they hear in the environment which is all around them. Children who are used to seeing and hearing words and have grown up in a home where trusted people read to them aloud, generally learn to read with more ease than children who have not had that experience. This must be because their neurons have branched and connected in the right way to translate symbols into thought and then language.

My doctoral research investigated whether children’s mobile libraries (CMLs) could be mobile learning environments which stimulate reading. I found out that children were attracted to CMLs for the most obvious of reasons, they came and went; they appeared and then disappeared. That made a visit very special and made the children excited. Children told me that they liked the books inside them; this was despite the fact that some of the vehicles I visited also lent out other items, such as CDs, and had internet access. In fact, when children came on to vehicle and the doors were closed all they could see were books and other people looking at books. The children’s behaviour was generally regulated by the mobile library staff in the same sort of way that teachers do. They set procedures and instruct children with expectations of good behaviour to ensure that trouble does not start. This meant that the environment was therefore safe for each individual, not only physically, but also psychologically, because everyone was engaged with a reading activity, so there was no mockery from peers. Children were also safe from the possibility of self perceived failure because they were not in lessons where they had to prove themselves. The atmosphere inside a CML is the same wherever it goes, no matter where, traveller sites, small village schools or inner-city play groups. A children’s mobile library promotes and encourages reading by being a mobile reading environment. If Baroness Greenfield is correct, then children who regularly visit CMLs are helping their neurons to make the right connections to become better readers. 

Patrick Ryan enchanted the audience with riddles and storytelling, explaining the idea of the storytelling trance. That is the state of mind that person reaches when they become so immersed in a story, whether they are reading it, or watching it, or hearing it, that everything else around them becomes insignificant. Patrick Ryan used the term “Hypnogogic Trance”, other people have called this effect an “Altered State of Consciousness”. As I sat watching children listening to stories being read on CMLs I noticed how still and intent most of the children were. A nursery worker commented that the toddlers that she brought on to a CML behaved there in a different way to their behaviour in Nursery. They had sat and listened quietly to two stories and some rhymes. Looking over my field notes, I saw that I had written the phrase “The children sat and listened” many times. These children must have reached that state of altered consciousness. This state is significant to the children’s ability to learn for three reasons. First, in that state the children are relaxed and not under stress therefore they can learn better. Secondly they are learning the skill of concentration which they will need to use as they grow older and have to tackle harder tasks. Thirdly, they are increasing their knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, speech rhythms, and narrative structure. These three things are important skills to acquire when you are learning to read.
The illustrators, who presented or ran workshops, Mini Grey, Lynne Chapman, and Martin Salisbury, reminded me of the significance of visual literacy. Pictures can be “read” to tell the story, in fact looking at some books you can almost tell the main narrative with another story developing alongside by reading the pictures instead of the words. Pictures in books for children give them clues about the context of a story which helps children to make sense of the words. Pictures help children develop sequencing skills, noticing when one action is followed by another. Our current society operates in pictures as well as words; screens proliferate in the form of television, or computers, or mobile devices of all sorts. Therefore knowing how to interpret pictures is vital to children. Again, as I observed the children on CMLs, looking at books on their own or with friends or adults and listening to the operators tell or read them stories, I noticed that they were reading and interpreting the pictures in books. The children either made up their own stories to the pictures, or answered storytellers questions about pictures in storybooks. The children were practising their visual literacy.

So to end at the end and answer the question “do children’s mobile libraries enhance literacy? “ Yes they do, by making children excited about borrowing books, by being an immersive reading environment where children can practice all the skills they need to acquire to be a reader and by the mobile library operators encouraging  them to read. The YLG conference was relevant to me because it was a situation where experts revealed information which reassured me that the conclusions of my research were founded on sound theories. The conference also refreshed my mind, which was tired from the effects of having to think hard, because the multitude of children’s authors, illustrators and their books, reminded me that I started the research not just to get a PhD, or to examine literacy but also because I love children’s books. 

Bamkin, M.R., 2012. The researcher’s tale: the YLG conference 2011 “Opening doors, the power of story” and its relevance to my research”. Youth Library Review, Issue 42 , 2012

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