Teaching literacy without censorship

Until recently I worked in a secondary school library. During my last few weeks as a librarian, a Year 7 student approached me with a concern over swearing in a graphic novel. They were concerned that others their age were being given access to materials containing words they are taught not to use themselves, and wondered why it was OK for them to read swear words in library books.

I asked the student if they ever watch TV shows or films, or play console games that contain swearing. They answered with ‘yes’, obviously (I’d be worried what sort of child they were if not…) and I explained that books are just another form of media and entertainment, and that just because we read the words rather than hear them in someone else’s voice, it doesn’t change the fact that the swear words are there for us to read or hear. They seemed a little unsure about this at first, and I think they were a bit surprised when I said I wouldn’t be taking the book out of the library due to its content.

shocking_bookI know a lot of parents believe in the technique of not giving children access to things they don’t want them using themselves, but I think teaching children how to use language appropriately is much more important. I wouldn’t ever condone children for swearing, but this is mostly because in the environment I work in, fucks and shits are too commonly used in most sentences, either as a tool for showing off, or because swearing is second nature due to home environments the children live in. It seems impossible not to tell them off for swearing, rather than teaching when and if swearing is appropriate or necessary (and it can be, in conveying emotion in literary writing, for example) when you hear it as often as I do, but removing it from their library collection altogether wouldn’t do any good.

When I have read books containing any explicit material, the effect of its use is often much more dramatic than if, say, watched on TV. What you read in a book often comes across in your own voice, making it more surprising when your mind hears it. But with the shock of this, comes the possibility of the realisation of what swearing is, how it should be used and when it is appropriate, and most importantly, how strongly words can come across when you may otherwise think of them casually.

I know from my own school experiences that hearing a teacher swear was incredibly shocking. I often hear things at work like “Oh my God, miss, you just swore!”, when in fact, all I will have done is repeat the words that student has just used when resolving a behavioural situation. They find it a lot more shocking than when it comes out of their own mouths for some reason, and it has the desired effect of showing appropriate use.

If I’m reading outloud to a group of students, I will sometimes censor certain words (depending on the age of the audience), but if I’m reading a particularly emotionally-strong scene, I won’t hold back. It shocks them. They gape at you, then they look at their friends, gape some more, then giggle. It tells them that I’m not so stuck up that I can’t say fuck, and it creates an opportunity for them to talk more openly with you about their work (as well as anything else they feel like talking about).

More than anything else, swearing IS cool to kids, and if they find books that contain swear words, that then helps shed the image that books are dull, boring and for geeks that don’t have any fun, and in a job where promoting literacy is my main task, I won’t be turning down any opportunity to do so for the sake of adult language.

From September I’ll be teaching 11 year olds The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. It’s an incredible book, and I won’t be keeping them from experiencing a great story just because they’ll hear some naughty words.


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