Read all about it - while you still can

Do you agree that, without the skills of literacy, people are denied entrance to the world of meaningful knowledge? It would seem that too many Scottish children continue to fail to grasp the rudiments of reading. We are becoming inured to the seriousness of this problem. Secondary teachers will confirm that many of their charges dread reading aloud. The reason for this fear is the likelihood that they will not recognise some of the words and the subsequent embarrassment. What is also evident is that even those pupils who pronounce the words correctly frequently do not possess the confident fluency which marks them out as regular readers.

Mystifyingly, some of these young people are studying challenging subjects which require high level skills in terms of understanding and interpretation. Quite how they survive on their meagre literacy skills, I do not know. When I mentioned this concern to a university lecturer his terse response was: "They don't."

It's embarrassing, to say the least, that hordes of secondary pupils have not progressed much beyond a reading age of six or seven years. The Scottish Executive whimpers weakly about reducing class sizes in English and maths. I can't see how this is going to work. We are fed with the mush that smaller classes will magically transform illiterate pupils into literate beings. This is a woolly, far-too-late strategy.

What if the parents of these poor or non-readers don't care about the fact that their children can't read? What if they have never read to them, never wanted to read to them? What if they can't read either, having also fallen victim to the absurdly crammed 5-14 programme which has hijacked the possibility of developing bedrock literacy in primary school pupils? Some pupils might be able to tell you all about business enterprise, for instance, but they might not be able to read or spell these words.

What worries me is that the skill of reading might silently atrophy even more than it has already, just as we allowed Latin to slip away from most of the Scottish state education sector. Then we will engage in some sort of pretence and tell ourselves that reading is not important, just another relic of the past which served its purpose at the time.

Hear the platitudes. You can't read? Don't worry. You don't need to. All of the instructions for life can be held on computer software. You speak to your medicine bottle and voice-activated directions tell you what to do.

Reading? How quaint!

These luckless illiterate children have simply not had enough time spent on cultivating their literacy. Young kids are much more likely now to have a television in their bedrooms than a bookcase of reading material. Health visitor friends regularly observe that many homes are devoid of books but obscenely replete with the most expensive high-definition plasma television screens on the market. Their clients look perplexed when advised to introduce their babies to books.

What should we do? Get Jamie Oliver on to the problem. Such is our worship of the celebrity cult that we - and our policy-makers - may listen to him.

He did persuade the nation that school dinners contained the merest nod to real nutrition. Maybe he could whizz round Scottish schools and expose the worst of the literacy problems on a television series. He could team up with JK Rowling: after all, she's well qualified, having inspired adults and children to read for pleasure, possibly the best reason for reading.

Significantly, a primary colleague tells me that she hears her pupils reading every day but, due to lack of time, has to mark her jotters when doing so. "What? May I quote you on that?" I responded.

There you have it. The subtext - as well as the text - makes very gloomy reading. That is if you can read - not always an assumption by today's standards.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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