Somebody must champion literacy

I did this piece for a magazine called Poet’s Letter but wanted to share it with you on the blog. Hope it gets you thinking…

Fat kids have had Jamie Oliver and more recently Ian Wright queuing up, with a film crew in tow, to save them from eating themselves to death.

Those children that now eat school dinners that keep them trim and understand the benefits of exercise are no doubt better off but in an age where television and computer games are the main ways to relax just who is going to pick up the cause for literature?

Switch on the television or open a liberal newspaper and there will be some of the literary establishment speaking out in favour of more reading and decrying the current state of affairs.

The problem is that the people who need to hear that message neither watch that sort of television or read those sorts of papers.

Of course there are various incentives running, often through libraries and schools, that are designed to encourage reading but thanks in part to the widely held view that Harry Potter has saved children from turning away from books real problems persist.

Talk of a crisis might seem premature but the facts and figures are stacking up and the problem starts from the very first moment a child enters the classroom and starts to learn how to read.

When Penguin comes out, as it did at the time of its re-launch of its Classic range earlier this summer, and quotes from research that describes the average reader as getting through just one book a year and a heavy reader managing just four then maybe its time to start acknowledging a problem.

Add to a grim picture of someone leafing through pages of a novel at about three a week and last month the owners of the Financial Times, Pearson, came out with research that showed that one in ten parents never read to their children. Dads came out as the worst offenders and on the list of excuses were things like being too tired and prepared to skip pages to get to the end of a book more quickly.

There are some prepared to take a hard line into shaming parents into reading to their children but they are based in the US and the techniques they go in for tend to fail to translate across the Atlantic.

But something, or rather someone, is required to tackle the literacy issue because only a month before the Pearson figures about young school children came out there has already been a set of disappointing Key Stage 3 results in September.

Figures showed that children of 14 were not reading as well as they should be. In response both the Conservatives and Liberals described the results, with a third of children not reading at the required level, as “unacceptable”.

Of course they would say that but this is far from being simply a political issue. In a texting, sound byte culture children probably don’t feel the need to read even a 100 page novel and as a result miss out on classics that fall into that length including John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Hop onto the Internet and tap in reading figures into a search engine and more evidence of a problem will quickly appear.

The National Literary Trust has its own bleak figures, showing that 34 per cent of adults claimed to never read according to figures that are only a couple of years old.

One of the problems is that those who do read are stuck in a cosy world when the calendar is populated by author speaking events and the Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham Book festivals.

Mind you back in the summer when Waterstones asked its annual question of what MPs were taking with them as holiday reading in the summer recess it turned out to be Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which was the same title that came top amongst the politicians the year before. They say a week is a long time in politics but obviously not in the business of turning pages in a novel.

But politicians to one side the problem is that outside of the book lovers circle it takes Richard & Judy to act as a motivating force to get people to buy books along with the power of the major retailers and supermarkets to discount heavily those titles that are expected to shift in the lorry load.

If the reading figures continue to remain poor as both parents and children continue to fail to get to grips with the written word it doesn’t just spell danger for the publishing industry, that might find it harder to find a market for non mainstream titles, but it is not good for the health of the country.

The government has set all sorts of targets for children and adults but this taps into something more serious than just hitting the numbers. Is the nation that produced Shakespeare and Dickens going to be able to find someone of that calibre in the future?

So many homes are book-free with bookshelves being used instead to prop up collections of video games and DVDs leaving a generation without the mental tools needed to read a book.

Someone other than the figures in the current literary establishment needs to come out and put the debate in the public eye. Strong words and a different approach are needed and now is the time to deliver it in a way that children of all ages will be able to understand.

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