British children are not reading as much as they used to and in particular they are not reading for pleasure. So says the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. Children are apparently spending a third less time reading than six years ago and the most able children are leading the downward trend. This piece in The Guardian outlines the main points.
As might be expected the most vocal commentators on the report have been from the opposition parties, notably Michael Gove, the Shadow Children’s Secretary. I have quite a lot of time for Gove, whose witty enthusiasm for the arts makes him an entertaining reviewer. The Conservatives have made a big play of this decline in reading, but their response, which mixes up reading as an activity with reading as a skill, misses the point entirely. Here’s Michael Gove:
We are falling dangerously behind other countries and we know that those from the poorest backgrounds are suffering most. It’s time the government stopped blaming parents and accepted the case we’ve been making for a new focus on teaching reading using tried and tested methods, with a test after two years in primary school to ensure our children are being taught properly.
What he’s talking about here is literacy as a skill; something employers like and which affects our economy and competitiveness. But ‘tried and tested methods’ do not make passionate readers or smart, well-informed citizens. They may well produce people who can read, but only in the sense that people need to learn the tried and tested methods for tying their shoelaces.
What is needed is not more testing and key stage whatevers, but teachers and parents and politicians who care about reading and want to show how great and how modern it can be. How it fits in with the other things in childrens’ lives. The current report pits books against computer games as if they were somehow in competition. In reality they are not but many readers–teachers, politicians, worried parents–have failed to see that pleasure in reading does not preclude pleasure in other things. In some contexts the computer game, rather than the book, might be just what you need.
Here’s what I mean. At a Reader Food For Thought event a year or so ago I was seated with a secondary school teacher, who complained with some force that her students did nothing but play computer games and were not interested in reading. I asked her what they were playing and she told me that she didn’t use computers and that she didn’t care what they were playing. That’s a mistake. Of all people teachers should understand what students are doing, even if they don’t like it themselves. When children see reading as less worthwhile than gaming, lashing out at gaming is not going to make the kids put down their Wii. We need to make the case for books, not against computers.
I for one would like to see Britain become world champion nation at sitting in an armchair reading big miserable books. But the Opposition plan to focus on the method rather than the excitement of reading will do nothing to change a national attitude that goes against reading as something worth doing. Of course there is nothing wrong with improving the teaching of reading in schools, but going easy on parents is only useful as a vote winner. I was talking to an affluent, educated woman about children and television the other day. She said to me ‘Thank God for TV: without it you’d have to read boring books to your kids all the time.’ That’s what we’re up against and testing at six ain’t going to fix it.