West warned of creeping illiteracy

30th March 2007 at 01:00
"Suburban illiteracy" is creeping into affluent countries as pupils shun books in favour of the internet and DVDs, an international conference has heard.

Dr James Reardon-Anderson, a senior academic at Georgetown university in Qatar, told delegates at a literacy summit convened by Unesco, the United Nations education wing, that preserving reading in the West needed to become top priority for teachers.

The situation was being exacerbated by classroom trends towards using television and videos to cultivate "critical thinking" at the expense of books, he said.

"The biggest shortcoming of the present education system is that pupils are simply not reading enough and this limits their capacity to be well-educated," he said.

The result was that many arrived at university lacking basic literacy skills and without sufficiently broad reading, he added.

"So much of education is moving towards encouraging a sophisticated analytical approach rather than helping children to enjoy stories and language, which they are much better equipped to do," he told The TES.

His comments echoed an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study in 2000, which found that the UK led the developed world in TV-watching - with over 60 per cent of 15-year-olds viewing more than two hours a day - but lagged behind in advanced reading skills.

Despite this, Unesco are campaigning for a broader conception of literacy, including the ability to critique TV and radio.

Academics at the conference argued that critical thinking skills had been neglected by the developing world, leaving many people without the tools to debate current affairs. "Decoding the media is essential to participating in democracy," argued Dr Renee Hobbs, a media specialist at Temple university in Philadelphia.

Wadah Khanfar, director-general of broadcaster Al Jazeera International, said many Arabic children were unable to distinguish between fact and fiction and did not understand how news broadcasts were put together.

"This can lead to people overestimating the power of the media or else dismissing it through conspiracy theories," he told delegates.

Primary pupils should learn to differentiate between various programme genres, academics said.

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