Read out loud and read on and on
ONE important aspect of the reason for the alleged "one in five who can't read" is that reading is not like getting on a bike or swimming - once you have learnt, you never forget how to do it, even if you don't do it for years. Reading is a skill that must be used every day.
This may seem like stating the obvious, but some young people, once they have acquired the basic skills, are not forced to practise them at a higher level so their vocabulary remains basic and they have no experience of complex structures. It is not that they cannot read: it is that their reading skills have not progressed beyond the infant stage.
The really worrying fact is that reading is viewed by many children as an unpleasant chore, whereas it should be one of life's great pleasures which brings with it knowledge as well.
Of course, computer programmes, television and radio can fulfil these two functions, but not to the same degree. None of these media engages the mind and the senses as reading does. Think of the scalp-tingling sensation of reading about Count Dracula for the first time and compare it with the ham acting of the visual representation, which calls forth laughter, instead of horror.
Think of the evil of Long John Silver, as he leers from the page - not the comic avuncular figure of numerous films. Think of the thrill in your bones when a good reader reads the ghostly scenes from A Christmas Carol. Nothing compares to reading.
That is what we must let children know and experience. The more mundane functions of reading will be a branch line which has to be taken to reach the destination of the new worlds that reading opens up for us, in the same way as the letter of application may lead to your dream job.
When I was an assistant principal English teacher, part of my remit was to liaise with local primary schools on the 5-14 initiative, and I learnt something about reading in the later stages of primary school which disturbed me a great deal : reading aloud was "not done" after P3. Yet at the secondary stages, pupils are often expected to read aloud and it had always puzzled me that it was obviously an ordeal for some of them.
When I questioned why this was so, the answer was that "it came from the primary adviser". Apparently it was felt that once children had learnt the basic skills, the need for reading aloud no longer existed. I was assured that all P4-P7 pupils had to spend some part of the day in "silent reading".
My next question was: "how do you know that they are spending that time reading and understanding what they are reading?" The answer was that they had to do book reviews and tell the teacher about the book.
No doubt some of the children did "read silently" but when I asked some S1 pupils about this part of their primary work, they confessed that they spent the time skiving and made up their review from the blurb at the front of the book.
Of course, there is a place for reading silently but it can leave the teacher in the dark about problems the pupil may be having with the text, which would be clear if the child was reading aloud.
It is not true that children do not like reading aloud. Any teacher will tell you how the hands go up when a volunteer reader is requested. One of two may be shy, but they will take the opportunity to read on a one to one basis, or in paired reading.
It is a sad fact and probably one which has contributed the most to the decline in reading standards that the selection of texts for school reading has been "dumbed down" in the same way that the BBC has lowered its intellectual and cultural sights.
Texts with little, if any, literary merit were brought in their hundreds for the "lower ability" groups. Mostly the plots were about teenage gangs and the language was as simple as possible without actually being Janet and John. Far from encouraging this group to read, they were mostly bored and insulted by the texts offered to them.
Most teachers soon abandoned the "dumbed down" texts for their own sake as well as the pupils they were teaching, but the dumbing down continues in teen magazines and popular newspapers. I have never met a child who did not want to learn, even those who were school refusers. It is up to us to make reading something that they want to do more than all the pleasurable learning experiences available to them.
Let's stop those who talk of reading as if it was some ordeal you had to go through to "get on" and reveal it as a gift, which will last a lifetime and improve the more you use it.
Jean Anderson is a former English teacher.