Nancie Atwell on the fundamental importance of literacy

‘Best teacher in the world’ emphasises the importance of giving students freedom of choice

The ‘best teacher in the world,’ Nancie Atwell, winner of the Global Teacher Prize, 2015, has stressed the fundamental importance of literacy skills during a visit to London.

Addressing parents, teachers and journalists at The Hampshire School in Chelsea on Wednesday 11th November, Nancie (pictured above with the school's Headmaster, Donal Brennan) said policymakers have dismissed “a wealth of evidence” concerning the power of reading.

In London to join up with the Judging Academy for the 2016 Global Teacher Prize, Nancie said there were three major factors that enable literacy to bloom:

  • students are given access to large and varied collections of books
  • students are allowed the freedom to choose what they want to read
  • students are granted the time they need

At the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), the school Nancie founded in Maine to support underprivileged learners, students work their way through an average of 40 books each year, becoming “skilled, thoughtful, avid” readers along the way. In achieving this, Nancie said, choice and time have been crucial.

Underlining the importance of children being given the freedom to choose the books that interest them, she said: “We want our kids to be asking ‘What happens next?’ as that’s a pathway into literacy.”

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"Real books"

Multiple studies, she said, have documented the positive impacts of libraries in schools; children need “rich, extensive collections of books in schools” and they need “real books”, not digital copies. Kids prefer, Nancie said, the “geography” of actual books; they find it easier to flip back and forth to check possible misunderstandings or missed plot devices and develop a better sense of what’s coming next. When they read real books rather than e-books, she said, children sleep better and have richer social lives; the covers of books function “almost as badges” which they can swap and discuss in the playground.

“Just the right book at just the right time”

Nancie, who has published 13 books on teaching, spoke of the impact that reading “just the right book at just the right time” can have. Quoting Graham Greene, she said: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

For Nancie herself, that moment came when she read The Secret Garden and found herself empathising with the story’s characters. The book, which she read 4 times, “changed everything” and sparked a lifelong love of literature. Drawing from an “underground curriculum of my own designing”, she began reading novels such as 1984 and Rosemary’s Baby, developing a passion that would later lead her to study for a BA (Hons) in English and, ultimately, take up a career in teaching.

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"Returning autonomy to practice"

Discussing the culture of testing that prevails in many countries’ education systems, Nancie said it was important to have standards yet there was plenty of proof that “testing doesn’t lead to excellence.” Teachers have become more like “technicians,” she said, and changes are required at the level of government to help them remain passionate about education. To have successful, satisfied educators, she said, “we need to start returning autonomy to practice.”

The Global Teacher Prize

The Global Teacher Prize was introduced by GEMS Education’s chosen charitable partner and campaigner for change, the Varkey Foundation, as a means of raising the profile of the profession. Nancie was presented with the award in March 2015 by Bill Clinton, former US President, at the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF). She immediately chose to donate the $1m award to her school, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL).

Speaking about the effects winning the Global Teacher Prize has had on her and the school, Nancie said the fund has helped replace boilers at CTL as well as add to its extensive library. “If I had (the) funds I’d fill the classrooms of the world with books of stories,” she said, adding, “if I had influence beyond my dreams, I'd direct the educational decision makers of the world to pay attention to literacy scholarship, focus on comprehension, and bring children's literature from the periphery of reading instruction to the foreground to put wonderful stories front and centre."

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Following her talk at The Hampshire School, Nancie went on to join the Global Teacher Prize’s Judging Academy (pictured above) at the offices of PricewaterhouseCoopers, official auditors of the prize. The academy, composed of head-teachers, journalists, public officials, entrepreneurs, company directors, scientists and educational experts from around the world, is currently considering the longlist for the 2016 award.

Whirlwind tour

Nancie’s whirlwind tour of London also saw her meet with Nick Gibb, the UK Minister of State for Schools, at Capital City Academy, where she held a writing workshop. Mr Gibb said he supported Nancie "in her drive to highlight the importance of literacy and to help spread the love of reading around the world".

On the Sky News Sunrise breakfast show, Nancie discussed the personal impacts of winning the 2015 prize with Eamonn Holmes and offered advice for keeping students engaged and intellectually challenged. She went on to join Sadiq Khan, MP and Labour party London mayoral candidate, in south London to discuss literacy in the capital and its importance worldwide with students and staff at Harris Academy Merton.

Nancie later met with Vanessa Feltz (below) on her BBC Radio London show and spoke to the Literacy Panel at Teach First about the importance of providing spaces for children to enjoy books, once more emphasising the positive influence that giving children the freedom to choose the books they want to read for themselves can have.

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Published: 23rd November 2015