It is unusual for a news story to run an entire week. For the most part, whether it is flood or famine, the story is here today and gone tomorrow. Flood and famine have their place, but it is a lot more enjoyable to read about a politician’s sexual peccadilloes or the misappropriation of public funds.
And so it’s hats off to London’s Evening Standard for running a front-page story on illiteracy for an entire week! The statistics released by the National Literacy Trust are chilling and reveal why in the past ten years, Britain has slumped from seventh place to 25th in the international literacy rankings.
- One in three children in London does not own a book.
- One in three children starts secondary school with a reading age of seven.
- One in three teenagers reads two books of fewer a year
- Seven percent of children never read outside the classroom.
HOWEVER, 85 percent of children own game consoles. Almost half of young people have a social network profile and two in 10 have their own blog!
Needless to say, everyone has weighed in on the discussion as to the causes and the remedies. From Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to educators and celebrities and pundits, everyone has expounded on the problem and its solutions.
As a former reading specialist, I vehemently disagree with Miriam Gross, author of the Centre for Policy Studies report “So Why Can’t They Read?” Gross blames the problem on bad teaching.
Teaching is just one small star in a constellation of factors. The three factors at the top of my illiteracy list include a lack of parental involvement, too many electronic distractions, and a cultural “fast food” mentality that diminishes the utility and enjoyment of reading.
Parents must stop blaming the schools. Teaching is a parent/professional partnership. If parents don’t support education, the teachers are rowing a one-oared boat. As for the electronic distractions, my granddaughter’s school promotes having one day per week device-free: no TV, no Game Boys, no computers, no iPhones, no Wii games, nothing. Those students who go a day without electronics return to school with a parental note to that effect. Like students being awarded prizes for the number of pages or books read, the students are awarded for device-free days. I love this.
The solution to falling literacy rates must be multi-faceted to include better teaching, free, in-school breakfasts, parental support, and older students mentoring primary students one-on-one. Most importantly, we need a cultural shift that values substance over the ephemeral. The empty calories of fast food have been widely exposed. What about the empty calories of pop culture? If learning to read were only as easy as getting a boob job.
(And least you wonder why I have not commented on literacy in the United States, I’ll just say that the measures of literacy vary from country to country. Looking at a 2009 United Nations Development Programme Report, Georgia reported 100 percent literacy, Cuba, Estonia, and Latvia reported 99.8 literacy, and the U.K. and the U.S. reported 99 percent literacy. So much for statistics. Standardization has not come to international measures.)