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Reading: Literacy in decline

Updated on September 30, 2010

Books vs Electronics

As a school teacher, I have watched with dismay the decline in literacy, not only in Britain, but right across the world. Along with concerned parents, teachers, university professors and even politicians, I question why. There is no simple answer to that question nor, unfortunately, is there a quick and easy solution to the problem. The problem is a complex and multi-faceted one, beginning with the astounding advances which we have seen in technology over the course of the past 50 years. This, at face value, could be seen to be a contradiction in terms as one would expect literacy to improve with technological advances and not show the alarming decline which we have witnessed. But if we examine the impact that these advances have had on the lives of children and how the mind set of children has undergone such a radical change, it becomes evident that technology is at least partially responsible. Books now face fierce competition in the form of television, computers, gaming consoles, ipods and even mobile phones to name just a few of the exciting distractions available. Children are constantly ‘plugged in’ to some device or other and seldom bother to bury their noses in a book – unless they are forced to.

The Balancing Act of the Working Mother

But technology is not the only factor involved. Lifestyles have also changed dramatically since the 2nd world war. Gone are the days when mothers stayed at home and supervised their children’s activities after school. Gone are the days when children cuddled up to mother on the sofa listening to a story. Gone are the days of mothers spending quality time with their offspring. They simply don’t have the time or the energy to do so. A mother, having spent an entire day at work, arrives home tired and jaded and has to summon the reserves from who knows where to tackle the cooking and other household chores which await her. No wonder so many children spend the best part of the afternoon and evening in front of the television, texting on their mobiles, or playing the latest PSP game, all of which does little to provide them with intellectual stimulation or to enhance their reading prowess.

Increasing Pressure on Teachers

The third problem arises in the classroom itself. Teachers face increasing pressures today which their counterparts of 50 years ago did not have to deal with. The ever increasing lack of discipline in the classroom has seriously undermined the authority of teachers causing a breakdown in the system. If children cannot be controlled effectively, they cannot be taught effectively. It is as simple as that. Add to this the increasing work load on teachers and an ever-changing curriculum and it is scarcely any wonder that teachers suffer stress and burn-out. A stressed teacher is not the best teacher. Also quite a simple equation.

Read to Your Children

Like I said, there is no quick and easy solution. Having said that I do believe there are things which can be done to address the problem. But it is going to require a concerted effort on the part of teachers and parents alike to bring about any meaningful change.

The first step is to try to limit the use of ipods, mobiles, computer games, television and the like and to attempt to implement a reading programme which is followed daily. This obviously has to be done in the home and is going to require the co-operation of both parents to achieve. When I was a student many years ago, I remember it being said: a child being read to, is the first step towards a child wanting to read themselves. Wise words. Parents need to read to their children on a daily basis. 20 – 30 minutes of reading with no other distractions. In other words, television is switched off! An added bonus is it will be a wonderful time of bonding with your child. It will also be necessary to build up a collection of good books in the home which children can be encouraged to read. With this aim in mind, we need to ask ourselves what the primary motivation for getting our children to read actually is. Is it for enjoyment or is it to instruct or learn? The answer is, both really but in my opinion the main reason for reading should be for the sheer pleasure of it. A child who enjoys reading will want to read and will want to learn. The child who does not enjoy reading will most certainly not want to learn. So, the primary aim is to foster a love of reading in the child and we the reading material should be selected accordingly.

When is the best age to introduce children to books? The answer is, as early as possible. Board books are available for babies and toddlers and there are many delightful picture books available for the pre-school child.

Books for the Early School Years

Peter Pan                              J M Barrie

The Magic Faraway Tree       Enid Blyton

Alice in Wonderland               Lewis Carroll

The Twits                               Roald Dahl

Winnie the Pooh                     A A Milne

Tom’s Midnight Garden          Philippa Pearce

The Tale of Peter Rabbit       Beatrix Potter

The Sheep Pig                       Dick King Smith

Heidi                                      Johanna Spyri

Stuart Little                            E B White

For the Child Aged 10 - 14

Carrie’s War                                                    Nina Bawden

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas                      John Boyne

The Famous Five (Series)                              Enid Blyton

The Secret Garden                                         Francis Hodgsen Burnett

Boy & Going Solo                                           Roald Dahl (autobiography)

Danny, the Champion of the World                Roald Dahl

My family & other animals                              Gerald Durrell

Lord of the Flies                                            William Golding

The Wind in the Willows                                Kenneth Graham

The Chronicles of Narnia (Series)                CS Lewis

Anne of Green Gables                                 LN Montgomery

Waiting for Anya                                          Michael Morpurgo

War Horse                                                   Michael Morpurgo

The Railway Children                                  E Nesbit

The Wickedest Witch in the World              Beverley Nichols (out of print)

The Borrowers                                           Mary Norton

Swallows & Amazons                                 Arthur Ransome

Harry Potter (Series)                                 J K Rowling


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    • kozmo profile image

      kozmo 5 years ago

      Because our world is so busy now, it is time for grandparents to be more involved again with their grandchildren. Parents of young children are exhausted trying to balance all the events of a day. This is when a grandparent can offer time and encouragement to spend quality time reading and explaining concepts to their young grandchildren. I am in this place now--a retired teacher who is enjoying each minute that I can extend knowledge about early reading skills to my grandchild. They absorb every detail and love learning. Sitting on the couch reading a book and explaining how the written word works is the more valuable use of these precious moments. Enjoy the this precious time with your grandchildren.