Wednesday 7 January 2009

On Reading

It's no great surprise to learn that reading standards among 14-year-old boys are
slipping. State education has, by and large, made an awful hash of teaching children to read at all, let alone to read to a level appropriate for their age. Now that state schools are beginning to return (reluctantly) to the widely reviled system of phonics, things might look up a bit, but the fact remains that parents who leave it to the state to teach their children to read are taking a gamble. Do it yourself and you'll find it remarkably easy - leave it to school and it can turn into an uphill struggle. Almost any child who is read to as part of the natural order of his/her everyday life will, from natural curiosity, be open to the idea of learning to do it him/herself, and can be quite easily taught, without pressure, using some version of simple phonics. Both my own children (one boy, one girl) were reading fluently before they went to school - and they certainly hadn't been hothoused (they'd never have stood for it). Familiarity with the pleasure of books made them keen to learn. And reading with your children does so much more than offer a route to literacy - it strengthens the parent-child bond by giving what is truly 'quality time' and focused attention to the child, and, with luck, it lays the best foundation for education of all kinds - even, with luck, for a lifelong habit of reading for pleasure. It is far too important to be left to the state. What Paul Goodman says (in Growing Up Absurd) of speaking is demonstrably true of reading: 'If children went to school from the day they were born in order to be taught how to speak, a good percentage of the population would be unable to do so, or would stutter.' Well, the state doesn't yet make children go to school from birth - no doubt they'd like to - but the evidence for this particular failure of state education is all around.


  1. It would be simplistic to say that as the information revolution gathered pace and as much of it is text based as books are type based the opposite effect to learning has been seen. Perhaps it's a tactile thing, a book may encourage concentration, a computer screen may not. The parents input in the early days is critical and today somewhat lacking, add to that the quality of teaching, poor at best and the current situation is hardly surprising.
    Our Norwegian friends children who started school aged seven were noticeably in front of the average British child. When it came to the sciences the difference was embarrassing. I spent over 30 years interviewing school leavers and I found that the general level of education compared to most of their European counterparts was often poor.

  2. But Malty, you're forgetting what that nice Mr Blair (or was it Mr Balls?) told us - that we've got the best school pupils ever, taught by the best teachers ever, in the best schools ever. Yes, I think it was Balls...

  3. Oh lah-dee-dah aren't the Norweigans and the Swedes and the Germans and the Dutch so bloody wonderful with their superior education and command of foreign languages and their beautifully-behaved teenage boys ever so polite and good to their mothers and wear sensible shoes and doesn't it put us to SHAME with our chavs and WAGS and none of us can even speak French but at least we're better than the Americans they don't even know where Norway IS and they don't have a national health service etc

    And yet, no matter how well they educate each generation, the Euros always still end up sucking, and the Yanks are on top.

    Weird, innit.

  4. I think the answer's yes to all of those Brit, except about the Americans, who deserve to be on top and I'm very glad they are (for now) - better than having Germans - or French, or Russians, or Chinese - on top, that's for sure...

  5. The Norwegians are better educated but do have foibles. As best man at our friends wedding we stayed at their large house near Lillehammer, this was packed full of Norgy relations and kids. As each new batch of saucepan lids appeared we, as you do, enquired "who do they belong to". Our friends had both been married before (a lot) and had accumulated a congregation full, the answer was either "Mai Britt's" or "Edgars" Not only were the kids there, the ex's were all at the wedding. There was perfect harmony.

    At various points during the ceremony they break into song, everyone in tune, including the previous partners.
    The day was hugely enjoyable, and surreal.

  6. Not to mention creepy, Malty.

    Beautifully behaved, well-educated children are seriously overrated.

  7. You didn't mention that famous Norwegian sense of humour Malty...

  8. The Norwegian sense of humour cannot be underestimated Nige. After all, they've made the biggest cock-and-balls joke of all time by staying out of the EU, at the expense of the Fins and Swedes.

  9. Nige talking about who 'deserves to be on top' and references to Scandinavian countries resembling a gentleman's orbs. It's in really bad taste and, I think, quite uncalled for. I do not come here to read pornography. I do that in the local library.

    Now, good day to you, sir.

  10. Oh dear, more huffing and puffing!

    (1) my daughters go to a state school. The 12 year old has had to read and analyse in-depth Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, The Withered Arm and other stories by Hardy, and To Kill a Mockingbird so far this year.

    (2) Why blame the schools if the parents do not encourage reading, or read themselves and show by example that it is a great activity?

  11. Wow that must be one popular state school Maxine! My own daughter went to a highly regarded state school and did very well - but it wasn't until she got to university (to do an English degree) that she learnt to punctuate properly. I was state educated in the same borough, and in those days we learnt all about punctuation at primary school (in a class of 50).

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