The National Year of Reading will focus on the ABCs, but what we need is to encourage a higher level of literacy, says English teacher Joanna Williams
Misreading the problem of literacy
'I passionately believe that, after sex, literacy is society's most important tool.' I haven't a clue what Phil Redmond, creator of Brookside, means by this. What I am certain of is that we are going to be hearing many more statements persuading us of the importance of literacy over the next few months. September marks the launch of the Department for Education's National Year of Reading, and the government is determined that 'the whole nation will be aware' of the initiative.
Over £50 million is being spent promoting the Year of Reading, and business, the media, schools, government agencies and charities have all been recruited to help. The northern town formerly known as Bolton will now become 'Bolton - the reading town'. Norfolk county council is planning Families at Work, Saturday morning reading workshops in workplaces for fathers and children. Trafford borough council's Reading to Children project will involve 6000 council employees in a scheme to read a story to every child in Trafford's schools, libraries, nurseries, leisure centres and playgroups - some 25 000 stories in total. Save the Children's Equality Learning Centre in Islington will be running a reading project for young boys and their fathers.
Phil Redmond is planning to exploit literacy storylines in Brookside. 'This will happen on three levels', he says. There will be storylines designed to highlight the traumas suffered by people who cannot read, characters will comment on the benefits of literacy, and the soap will portray positive images 'which will involve male characters being shown reading to their children, or using one of those splash-time books you can read in the bath'. I must admit to being something of a Brookside addict, but even I could not stomach the prospect of pusher-turned-teacher Jimmy Corkhill in the bath, smiling away to a 'splash-book'.
The aim of the year is to raise standards of literacy and to 'create a more literate nation'. The glossy promotional brochure talks proudly of taking 'a giant step forward in transforming our attitude to reading'. It makes me wonder what exactly there is that needs so much transforming in the nation's attitude to reading. Surely everybody thinks an ability to read is important. How could we cope with a simple journey, a trip to the supermarket, or using a computer if we could not read?
The fact is that virtually every person in the country has enough basic literacy skills to complete these simple tasks. Current statistics measure the UK's rate of basic literacy as being at about 100 per cent (Social Trends, 28, 1998). This is a significant improvement on the past. More people in Britain have basic literacy skills than ever before.
When we move away from basic literacy to look at higher levels of reading ability, the picture is not so promising. The problem the National Year of Reading material merely hints at is that so few people have levels of literacy that enable them to do more than just the basics.
An Office for National Statistics survey shows that even four per cent of graduates only have the most basic levels of literacy, barely enough to get by in day-to-day life. Research reveals that schoolchildren nowadays are not as good at reading as they were in the recent past. A National Foundation for Educational Research survey claims that 'children today make slower progress in reading between the ages of eight and nine than they did a decade ago' ('Reading in recession', 1996). Leicester University's well-respected Oracle primary school project carried out identical reading tests in 1976/7 and 1996/7, and noted a fall in average scores from 63 per cent to 48 per cent.
In recent years there has been pressure to change reading tests, to make them more 'relevant' - which means out go words like perambulator and refrigerator, in come words like pram and fridge. These words are more widely used today, but if you can read properly you would expect to be able to read more than just the words you hear every day. Examination boards are increasingly cautious in the wording they choose for exam questions, not wishing to penalise students who know the right answer but cannot read the question.
The problem is that it is not until people reach the higher levels of literacy that they can read in such a way that will actually enhance their life to any extent. Think of all the wonderful books that you have enjoyed reading: the sheer escapist, the thought provoking, the inspirational, even plain old instruction manuals. A transformation in the nation's attitude to reading would surely mean lifting more people up from the basic levels of literacy and getting them to read something more worthwhile. To talk about transforming the nation's attitude to reading is to suggest that perhaps the government wants to get everybody reading Shakespeare, or to introduce people to new and challenging texts.
However, the government seems to have no such notion of transformation. Its aim appears to be to promote an ability to read, on the simplest and most technical level. The National Year of Reading seems to promise nothing more than a further promotion of basic skills, and it is my bet that it will not come anywhere near to raising standards of literacy. How can a focus on the basics improve matters, when nearly everybody has the basics of literacy already?
In fact, even to suggest that people should be reading certain kinds of books is to go against the grain of everything the National Year of Reading is about. The all-inclusive approach is stressed again and again. Ken Follet, author and chairman of a Labour task force on literacy, has explicitly warned against fostering an 'elitist idea of literacy' during the National Year of Reading and of excluding people, particularly adults, with low literacy skills. 'We have to emphasise the importance of being able to read without putting down those who have difficulties, such as dyslexics, and those with special needs', says Follet. 'To many of these people, not being able to read is embarrassing and we have to make them feel less embarrassed.' (Times Educational Supplement, 13 March 1998)
This all-inclusive emphasis has led to some rather bizarre suggestions for how to promote the Year of Reading. Plans include a campaign to get every new street created during the year named after a book, a character, a poem or an author, the setting up of company-run 'readathons' for employees, and even to have extracts of writing printed on tissues and toilet paper!
A small proportion of the population does have a real problem with basic literacy. These people need help to learn a vital life skill. The last thing they need is to be patronised by the likes of Phil Redmond or Ken Follet. They do not need mock applause for achieving a skill that we would assume most 10-year olds would have. This would be to trivialise genuine attainment. And this is the crux of my problem with the National Year of Reading. It will patronise the (very) small number of people with real problems, and in the process of doing so will reduce the whole concept of reading to the most banal level. The bigger problem is that so few people can read at the highest levels of literacy - and yet the fear of excluding anybody from the National Year of Reading means only the most basic reading materials will get promoted.
As an English teacher concerned with standards in education, I want my pupils to be stretched and to read challenging material. My favourite lessons are the ones where pupils take a book they think will be too difficult for them or just too boring, and really learn to love it. I want my pupils to take pleasure in reading Shakespeare, Milton, the Brontës, Wordsworth and many, many more. They will find the texts challenging at first, but with the right encouragement will gain much more satisfaction and enjoyment.
I expect the secondary age pupils I teach to be able to read; I would be angry at the low expectations people have for them if they could not. I would see it as my job to teach them the basics, but not something they or I need to celebrate. Most of all, I want the pupils I teach to have high aspirations about what they can achieve. Reading is about so much more than decoding words printed on toilet paper.
Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998