MARCH always brings with it World Book Day. It’s a time for children to dress up as their favourite book characters and celebrate the joys of reading and the incredible worlds offered to them by writers. As an author myself, it is the time of year when I am invited into several schools to talk about my love of reading and the wonder of the written word.
Today I am in Bristol, tomorrow is Bradford and Friday is London. Possibly 3,000 children this week will be told the tale of the librarian who got me to read at the age of 14. I am an author abroad, enthusing young people with the joy of reading.
For me, growing up on a council estate wasn’t the best start for a budding writer. Books were scarce and expensive and it wasn’t good to be seen with your head in one. Thankfully, I had a teacher who insisted I read and it changed my life. Books transported me from my council house to faraway places and great adventures. They introduced me to new ways of thinking and greater possibilities. There was nothing better as a child than being in bed with a book in my hand.
The school library was a place of retreat. Walls were covered in shelves laden with books. There was no such thing as a computer and the aroma of the written word filled the air. In the library, I was plugged into the universe.
How things have changed. I am saddened that some of the schools I visit have sacrificed their libraries and replaced them with IT suites. Row upon row of bland desks, upon which stand screen after screen, now fill the place where shelves of books once stood. “Library” is now a dirty word and is broadly replaced with “learning resource centre”.
One headteacher proudly told me that he had got rid of the library and replaced it with every child getting an iPad pre-loaded with books that had been chosen for them. Another school library I found was a small trolley locked away in a cupboard. A few years ago, I was at a Tory fundraising event and told the then-Education Minister that there was a crisis in reading in British schools. They laughed and walked away.
Maryanne Wolf, director of the Centre for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts, believes electronic reading can negatively impact the way the brain responds to text, including reading comprehension, focus and the ability to maintain attention to details like plot and sequence of events.
A 2014 study found that readers who used e-readers were less competent in recalling the plot and events in the book than those who used paperbacks.
According to Medical Daily, reading books helps people de-stress faster than listening to music, taking a walk or having a cup of tea or coffee. When researchers measured heart rate and muscle tension, they found that people relaxed just six minutes into reading.
Sadly, book-reading is something that is affected by your gender and social class. That is why I always accept invites from schools, as my mission is to keep working- class children reading as long as possible. Reading for them usually falls off in Year 9. Ask any school librarian and they will tell you that students often fade away from books at that age and it is very difficult to get them back. That’s why World Book Day is so important.
Yet, I cannot understand why school libraries are so underfunded. There seems to be lots of cash available for computers that will be out of date before they are bought and little money for good books that last a long time. I agree that students have to be computer-literate, but surely they should be book literate as well?
World Book Day comes and goes and yet the Government appears not to be really interested in getting our children reading in the long term even though their health, education and wellbeing depend on having good reading skills.
Britain is facing a literacy crisis which will leave nearly 1.5 million 11-year-olds unable to read properly by 2025. A literate society is a prosperous one and everything should be done to give all children the opportunity to master reading before they leave junior school.
Books and book reading should be promoted in school. Every child should have a book and every child should be a reader.
The Government and schools should emphasise the importance of reading books and not just snippets of texts photocopied on to paper for the purposes of an exam.
All is not lost. Next week I have been invited to a new school in the South-West where I am to open a school library packed with books that students will doubtless enjoy and fire their imagination. Perhaps the Education Secretary should join me – he might learn something.
GP Taylor is a writer and broadcaster from Scarborough.