Something that really shocks me is the number of kids leaving school in the UK with poor literacy skills. In this new millennium, around one fifth of school leavers have the literacy skills of an 11-year-old, or younger, making them basically unemployable. In fact 40% of employers complain about poor use of English from their youngest employees.
How can this be? My son has just finished Reception. He now reads with confidence and expression. Can his teacher really be one of a select few who can effectively teach reading to youngsters, or is the problem not, in fact, something that can be blamed on our schools?
At a recent school meeting teachers bemoaned the lack of support from parents. They send reading books home with the children, but they come back a week later having not been touched.
“Mum says I don’t have to read it.” The children say.
On school visits I regularly encounter children who tell me sorry, they would buy my book, but there's no point as they simply do not read, they haven’t a single book in their house.
I am a writer, I live by my imagination and yet I cannot imagine a household that doesn’t have one single book in it. Not a Bible, prayer book, or copy of the Koran, not a book in the toilet filled with useless facts, not a picture book for bedtime, not an atlas, or coffee table book, not a classic novel, or a work of contemporary fiction, not a reference book or dictionary, not a puzzle book, not a ‘beach’ book that came free with a magazine, not a comic, not a graphic novel, not even a dog eared copy of Calvin and Hobbes.
A house without a bookshelf, to me, is a house without a heart. It is heartbreaking to imagine all these houses, wordless.
I understand that books cost money and that in this day and age some families need every single penny to put food on the table. But aren’t books handed down any more (my kids have dozens of my own old childhood books, some of which belonged to my own mother when she was young)? Can’t families join a library and fill their shelves that way (I can take 9 books home on each library card my family has. That means I could have 27 new books for free every single time I visit), and in the areas where the libraries have been shut down, don’t the schools have libraries or library vans for the children to use?
I imagine that these shelves are not empty. I picture them filled instead with video games, iPads and DVDs, or even minimalist ornaments (books can, if I’m honest, make quite a messy display).
And if books are banished from the house what message does that give to our children about the importance of reading?
As parents taking responsibility for our children’s future we should be supporting those who are teaching our children learn to read and write.
So we should let our children see us pick up a book and read, make sure they can find age appropriate books easily, make them feel like a trip to the library is a huge treat, have Santa bring them a book token for Christmas. And we should tell them that it is actually important that they do their school reading.
A teacher can be the best to ever walk through a class room and an author can write the most exciting books; books that make children want to devour every page, but if a child is taught at home that reading is pointless, unsociable or something to be hidden away, then nothing the teacher or author can do will reach them. If a child does not practice their skills by reading for pleasure, there is the risk that they will leave school unable to read anything more complex than Disney Fairies and that would be a great shame.