During the primary years, schools have proven themselves adept at teaching children to read. Great news for primary school teachers and children. Reading is the key skill humans use to access new information and in modern hyper-connected, Bluetooth, streaming social society (some call Junk Culture) we never stop reading messages and may even be amusing ourselves to death according to some such as Neil Postman. Whether we believe childhood is better for more things to read or worse, the BIG change for the current generation of parents is that the idea of ‘reading’ we remember from school is under siege from the digital revolution of the last decade.
Reading can change the world. Not Audi or Apple, not the Huffington Post or YouTube. This post is about resetting our thinking about ‘reading’ as an idea. If we don’t accept that ‘reading’ for children – daily – is as important as eating and exercising, then children are not just left to their devices – but are being inducted into consumer culture that makes those devices so ‘life essential’ and more necessary than a book. So here, I’m going to lay it out – walk past EB Games and into a bookshop every time you go to the mega-loot-entertainment-hub near you. Grab a book, sit down with your kid and read for ten minutes. Then buy the book.
Why would you do this? Why would you care? Why give up the iPad and iPhone for old technology? Because reading really is a life skill. According to UNESCO “If all students in low income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, which would be equivalent to a 12 per cent cut in world poverty”. Boom! just by acquiring the skills we give children by Year 3. Around the world, most children don’t learn to read at school. If all women completed primary education, there would be 66 per cent fewer maternal deaths for example. So reading has a massive impact – it is literally a life or death skill.
The modern English alphabet took hundreds of years to evolve. In fact, the runic alphabet, which is the earliest form of written English has been in use since the 5th century. Many arguments, reforms, influences and changes later and the written English language encountered by teenagers is a collection of ‘modern English‘ and digital allographs that have lots of meanings. Added to that, teens create and use ‘glyphs’ and symbols to represent entire ideas and feelings (emoji). Recent US research has found that MOST teenagers don’t Google. For the last ten years or so, teachers have been arguing about whether Google is: cheating, rubbish, useful, a time-saver, a time-waster and so on. The battle was over what digital technology would be allowed in the classroom, and whether or not ‘the book‘ was better. It was a silly debate, but teachers seemed to enjoy it in staff meetings for years. The simple, sugar-free and brand-free reality is that reading is better for children than not reading. Australian research shows children have less leisure time than a decade ago and more media choices – so reading for many has vanished as something to do in their leisure time. We can get into what kind of ‘reading’ material, print vs digital etc., but that misses the point. Reading in the sense of reading a great book written in ‘modern English‘ has been shown to improve the lives of children for their entire lives. We can’t say the same of the iPad or the Xbox yet.
If you have read down to here, give yourself a pat on the back!
Reading means reading more than a Tweet or a Facebook post. The media would like you not to do that, but read a headline, then another, then another and spend your whole day clicking. That is what the US research found. Almost all high school students get their news from social media links – other people share. They are not Googling, they just click on ‘stuff’ and the engines that drive the stuff are designed to agree that their world view and lifestyle belief is the best. This internet is not the one you figured out in the 1990s. Today’s media bubble for teens has almost no useful comparisons to the days of Yahoo, MSN and beige computers in the family room.
Kids need to read to: interpret explicit information, retrieve direct information and interpret information by inferring meaning. Reading at school after Year 3 has been eroded by governments for decades. Yes they read text books, but how well they read them is really important. It’s the key driver of success into Senior school – being able to ‘read’ the question and then ‘read’ the text to answer is driven by skills learned a decade earlier. A student might be creative, insightful, hard working and so on, but unless they can ‘read’ well enough to decode the question, they are forced to guess or possibly take away the wrong meaning. It’s not like exam writers try NOT to do that, they do want to see who can deal with the difficult questions AND content.
Now I’m sure that all students read for 30 minutes a day, and that they know what books are appropriate for their reading level. They probably do this while they wait for their device’s battery to recharge. In case they don’t, then I suggest you find ways to encourage it at home, especially in teens. It might not be as well received as a new Xbox game, but that’s like saying we know children need a healthy diet to thrive and still feeding them sugary junk because they like it.
Schools do teach children to read. The media headlines might try and claim otherwise, but since the 5th century, modern English based reading – in books – has taught every great inventor, scientist, artist etc., the key skills they need to be a success – and it still delivers results.