Jayne Dowle: Throw out the rule book for a happy ending on literacy

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DOES it really matter how our children learn to read? As long as they do it? A new study by the National Literacy Trust urges parents and teachers to use iPads and Kindles to encourage under-fives to engage with stories.

Children are more likely to enjoy reading if they use both books and a touch screen to look at words, the research finds. Books alone don’t engage as much. This won’t please the traditionalists who think that all reading should be improving reading.

It will, however, please every parent who has ever felt guilty about letting their little one mess about on the computer.

The Trust is campaigning for improved access to touch screens in schools. All power to this, I say. Those who argue that technology hampers learning and creativity should see my eight-year-old and her friends running their world from their iPads. Forget the misjudged plans of the Education Secretary to teach youngsters how to “code” in primary school. Far too complicated. Much better to invest wisely and enable them to get to grips with technology they can really understand. And if this can be backed up at home on mum or dad’s smartphone, even better. If the parents at my school gate surfing Facebook are anything to go by, connectivity is no longer the preserve of the wealthy few.

We must wake up to the way that children read. It’s not a skill which should be seen in isolation, or confined to the classroom. Reading is a vital building block for adult life. Without literacy, a child has no chance of understanding any other subject. They won’t be able to read a map, or follow instructions for an experiment or understand an exam question. That’s why anyone who cares about the future of our children should support The Yorkshire Post’s new campaign, Turning the Page, which aims to improve the shocking statistics for childhood literacy in our region.

More than 2,000 students started secondary school in Yorkshire last September with the reading age of a seven-year-old. That’s 2,000 children whose life chances are blighted before they even begin. That’s 2,000 children who will never catch up, who will struggle to keep up in class, become disruptive or disaffected and generally fail to achieve their potential. This is disastrous for the individual child. And it’s disastrous for the economic prosperity of our region. How can we hope to thrive if our children are constantly lagging behind? How can we expect employers and investors to take us seriously if our young people can’t even read a job advertisement or compose a CV not littered with spelling mistakes.

Whenever this issue is raised, it’s tempting to start waxing lyrical about the golden olden days. I know for sure though that although my primary and comprehensive schools were disadvantaged in every sense, we all left at 16 able to read and write. And we didn’t have half the support children have today. No specialist teachers to coach the slower pupils. No literacy co-ordinators in school. No excuses and very little patience with those who found reading and writing difficult. Still, we managed it.

So what’s gone wrong? Year after year of reform and curriculum revision has taken power away from individual teachers. A school might be on the way to success, only to find itself ordered from on high to rip up the rule book and start again. No wonder children are confused and lose the plot.

And in recent years, there are has been far too much concentration on the technical aspects of language acquisition. I understand that many children learn well in a systematic way, such as through phonics. I respect the efforts of teachers to instil it. However, to me, too much prescription takes all the fun out of reading. Instead of becoming the gateway to myriad worlds, reading turns into yet another academic chore.

Learning like this certainly turned my son off reading at an early age. And now, at 11, he is still battling to get his head around it. And I have struggled for years to encourage him to read anything as long as it engages his attention. Like many boys though, he thinks that reading is “wussy” and only for swots. Why does Yorkshire suffer from poor attainment more than most? I’ll stick my neck out and say a contributing factor is because we’re well, Yorkshire. Our Jack would much rather be running around with a football shouting his head off than sitting in the armchair with Harry Potter.

I speak then from experience. And if experience has taught me one thing it’s that nothing should be discounted or dismissed. Teachers, parents, grand-parents, aunts, uncles, politicians and community leaders all have a part to play. And so do smartphones, tablets, iPads and laptops.

Let’s stop pigeonholing. Let’s stop pretending that teaching children to read is someone else’s responsibility. As the Turning the Page campaign highlights, it’s time for literacy to become a joined-up exercise.