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Let’s turn a new page in the world of reading

Teaching children that books are mere resources to be ‘consumed’ is having a baleful impact on reading, culture and the quality of public life.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Culture

Today, a significant section of society seems to have become estranged from the world of books and reading. According to an international study published last year, since 2001 the reading performance of children in England has plummeted from third place to nineteenth place in the world rankings. The study suggests that children of all abilities are doing worse in reading; indeed, falling achievement amongst the better readers contributed most to England’s poor performance. The report claims that children are less likely to enjoy reading today than they did five years ago.

This tendency for English kids to spend less time reading at home parallels developments in the United States. A major study published by the US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that young people in America are less and less likely to read for pleasure, and that their reading scores are declining, too.

What these reports indicate is not simply a decline in reading literacy, but a general loss of interest in books amongst young people, including amongst the better readers. It seems that the progress made in reading literacy in primary schools comes to a halt as children become teenagers. Surveys suggest that children read significantly less after the age of eight – and this lack of interest in serious reading continues into young adulthood. According to the NEA study, ‘Both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates’.

At first, it is difficult to account for the loss of interest in books and reading, especially amongst young people. Books and reading have never enjoyed so much cultural and societal validation as they do today. There are more bookshops now than at any time in the past. Virtually every town seems to have its own literature festival. Book clubs have sprung up throughout Britain. And successive governments have invested significant financial resources in promoting literacy amongst schoolchildren. So why do so many people decline the invitation to read for pleasure?

Many educators and policymakers point the finger of blame at the distractions offered by digital technology and video games. They argue that children have more choice about how to spend their free time, and that reading inevitably loses out to TV, the computer and the mobile phone.

However, it is worth noting that the media and new forms of technology have been blamed for the problems of childhood for a very long time. Yet whether children derive pleasure from reading books does not depend on the availability or non-availability of instant messaging or computer games. Children are not simply attracted to exciting media such as TV and electronic games – they are also turned off reading books.

Today, even the highest achievers are more likely to regard books as a means to an end rather than as a source of fun. One important reason for this is the signals that schools themselves send to their students. Schools tend to uphold reading instrumentally; that is, it is celebrated as a means to an end. When I recently asked a group of high-achieving 11-year-olds what they thought about reading, they showed that they could talk the talk. They told me that reading was important for their ‘career’ and for ‘getting ahead’. Their attitude towards reading books was not dissimilar to dogs jumping through hoops to gain a bone in reward.

Such attitudes will prevail so long as policymakers and educators privilege ‘literacy’ over ‘reading’. The UK government’s Literacy Strategy, promoted through the ‘literacy hour’ in schools, is devoted to the promotion of reading skills rather than to reading. Its narrow, tick-box approach tends to treat reading as a task or a chore, and does little to create a culture in which reading is valued for its own sake.

That is why even apparent improvements in literacy levels can coexist with a growing disenchantment with reading. Surveys carried out by the UK National Foundation for Educational Research found that children’s enjoyment of reading had significantly declined over the past few decades; this worrying trend is particularly striking amongst boys. According to the study, pupils are now less likely to enjoy reading stories, poems and information books. They are also less likely go to a library. One international study notes that children in England read for enjoyment less frequently than their peers in many other countries.

Sadly, the focus on literacy skills undermines the potential for stimulating a vibrant book-culture in the classroom. A skills-dominated lesson is very different than a conversation about a book. And outside of the ‘literacy hour’, the book often disappears altogether in schools. According to the Society of Authors, textbooks are being reduced to answer books for exams. Teaching relies on worksheets and work-books these days. More often than not, when it comes to writing projects students are instructed to ‘find information’ on the internet rather than being directed to get books from the library. By the time they arrive at university many students have learned the lesson all too well, and conclude that compared to ‘finding information’ on the net, reading books is a chore.

Many universities have accommodated to such attitudes and now happily direct students to what they call ‘learning resources’. These consist of websites, handouts, lecture notes, fact sheets, articles and sometimes even the odd photocopied chapter from a book – but rarely the whole book itself. The decline of the habit of regular reading amongst graduates, as noted by the NEA study, indicates that universities are no better than primary schools in cultivating a love of reading.

Gradually, Anglo-American educational institutions have succeeded in emptying reading of any meaning. Inevitably, this encourages a cavalier attitude towards the very usage of the English language amongst young people. As a result, often even the teaching of grammar is regarded as a burden rather than a precondition for cultivating a literate society. Last week it was reported that English teachers in England were struggling with grammar. A study published by Exeter University concluded that ‘for English teachers, who themselves attended schools when grammar was not part of the English curriculum, there is a significant issue of lack of assurance in grammatical subject knowledge, leading to difficulties in addressing grammar meaningfully in the writing classroom’.

The denigration of reading and the understanding of the written word has had a baleful influence on public life as well as on formal education. Earlier this year it was reported that the readership of newspapers in Britain is in sharp decline. A report noted that in 2006, 42 per cent of 18- to 27-year-olds read a daily paper on at least three days a week, compared to 72 per cent in 1986. Instrumental attitudes towards reading are clearly not confined to the book.

Something very important happens when the book is regarded as a resource rather than as something that is important in its own right. People still go out and purchase texts, and university libraries still stock them, but they are used for a practical purpose rather than for pleasure. Books are often consumed rather than read. It is the growth of this kind of consumption that helps explain the coexistence of a flourishing book industry with a decline in the habit of reading for pleasure. Maybe it is time that we shifted the focus from literacy skills to an education that cultivates a real love of reading.

Frank Furedi is author of many books, including most recently Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi argued the case for the truth of music and, in an interview with Brendan O’Neill, criticised 21st century philistinism. Sara Selwood attacked the statistical measurement of art’s usefulness. Alan Hudson argued that the point to education should be the pursuit of knowledge. Neil Davenport criticised the emphasis on literacy over a passion for words. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture

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