Threats to young readers

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Children can be successfully encouraged to read - provided that they switch off the television, argues Jane Miller. Reading has to be engendered at an early age as it is a well known fact that pupils who experience reading difficulties at school are seriously hampered in other areas of the curriculum as they mature.

Some authorities have been so concerned about the level of illiteracy among children in their regions that they have set up pilot schemes to enhance reading performance. This idea is embraced by many educationalists but early intervention at preschool level is much more significant as it catches more literacy deficiencies.

A preschool child who has never been nurtured in story reading or read to as a matter of duty will probably be one of too many heading towards the nadir of literacy.

The Government presently is setting up many more nurseries all over the country and it is essential that in these young children are targeted by explaining clearly to them and their parents, especially in areas of deprivation, how to foster good reading practice.

If a child is read to frequently and visits the library often then they will perceive reading as a natural and enjoyable pursuit. Furthermore it will augment their vocabulary; greatly develop their cognitive skills; boost their overall general knowledge as their reading acumen increases and it will stem many literacy problems in later life.

It is becoming patently evident that poor reading and literacy skills - provided the child is not dyslexic or exhibits general learning difficulties - are caused by excessive television viewing.

I remember being almost apoplectic when, many years ago, one of my pupils in the east end of a large industrial city turned up continually without money for his lost reading book and vehemently stated that his mother couldn't afford one - and yet they had a television in every room. The sad irony is that although television is educational and stimulating it greatly inhibits a child's reading if they have one in their bedroom.

Consequently, an increasing number of pupils now require some form of visual input or plenty of stimulating discussion beforehand to initiate any kind of literary response. The majority of those who read sparingly produce stories that are usually prosaic.

To exacerbate matters further, some pupils - according to recent surveys - are being exposed to visual material that in many cases is very disturbing.

This is a direct result of having access to their own television and personal video. A couple of years ago, one of the somnambulant primary children I was trying to teach told me about a film he had been watching the previous night - it had an 18 rating and finished at midnight.

Surely this is dangerously alarming?

Given the choice, a youngster will always opt for a television or computer rather than a book - but reading is crucial in the early years and depends crucially on parental involvement. Research reveals that excessive television viewing and addiction to computer games is encroaching on youngsters of every social strata.

We as educationalists cannot emphasise enough the importance of reading - and the importance of knowledge of language gained through reading.

General knowledge is enhanced as it is a proven fact that reading improves one's intelligence. I believe it can aid spelling and visual perceptions of words and consequently vocabulary is ameliorated.

A couple of years ago a colleague, who is a geography teacher, remarked that the pupils who scored well in her subject did so because their standard of English was highly commendable. The writing was fluent, the syntax flawless and the vocabulary mature.

This naturally enhanced their overall mark. All of these students, she asserted, read regularly and essay writing came as second nature.

"Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body," declared Joseph Addison.

It is of paramount importance though that reading in school is taught with alacrity. A few years ago, I was co-opting in a Foundation English class, comprising mostly 16-year-old louts, where the class teacher was reading a chapter out of a prescribed reader.

Her manner and enthusiasm for her subject was displayed in her teaching methodology and she managed to keep this fourth year Foundation mob, and myself, gripped by the book. The suspense was riveting. She exuded vitality and aroused excitement by her teaching approach.

What was frustrating was that although the whole class was thoroughly enthused by the various class readers and the immense amount of energy this teacher expended promoting reading to the class, not one of them read at home.

They had read sparingly when they were young and admitted they had never been persuaded to pursue this as a recreational pastime, although several of them had expressed a desire to embark on personal reading owing to the exuberance of that teacher.

I maintain that reading will be pleasurable to the majority of pupils if it has been encouraged at an early age by both parents and teachers. Many primary schools have adopted excellent strategies to foster fluency and reading enjoyment but reading acumen would improve vastly if the preschool child had been inspired to listen to stories and to realise that reading is a necessary part of life.

If this message is taken on board by parents, we will have succeeded. If parents engage with their children in quality time by talking with them frequently then they will score on language skills. Reading promotes both oral and written language. Conversely if they are allowed to absorb countless night-time hours of television, they will be bleary-eyed and tired. Television is a contributor to language, but reading and sharing conversation unquestionably supersede it.

We should therefore carefully monitor a young child's evening viewing. Television is a worthwhile source of information and a pleasant and necessary form of entertainment - but allowing a young child access to their own television will impair their personal reading immeasurably.

Jane Miller is a learning support teacher in the South Ayrshire network team

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