Sarah Todd: Failure to get children reading is a scandal on par with obesity crisis

What more can be done to encourage children to read books? Sarah Todd puts the onus on parents. Do you agree?
What more can be done to encourage children to read books? Sarah Todd puts the onus on parents. Do you agree?
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A CHILD not reading is as much of a scandal as the obesity crisis.

Every night, even when they were tiny tots, our offspring were read to. Now, aged 17 and 14, they still very rarely go anywhere without a book.

It’s not rocket science. They didn’t have televisions in their bedrooms or mobile phones and were sent to bed at 7pm to read before going to sleep. They had library cards – not as easy these days with recent closures – as well as comic and magazine subscriptions. In fact, it was The Beano that got The Son reading.

Happy to listen rather than reading for himself, it was the bribe of getting a subscription to Dennis and his mates – but only if he could read it by himself – which was the key that unlocked his love of literature. And “literature” is used deliberately. Like comedian-turned-author David Walliams, I believe any reading is worthwhile.

Now hang on. There is not a slummier mummy than this correspondent. PE kits are only washed in the holidays, fish fingers and chips are still staples on our teatime menu and we’ve never been on time for any appointment.

It’s just that reading is, to me, more important than any amount of formal qualifications.

From reading comes vocabulary. From vocabulary comes conversation. Then from conversation comes everything.

Being able to strike up a conversation – about anything from a book to the weather – is a hugely underrated skill. It is no exaggeration to say that children’s lack of reading is creating a whole generation that is incapable of holding a conversation.

Unlike many parents, I’ve never read an Ofsted report. As a complete ignoramus on all matters educational, there is just one comment I’d like to make on the system. It doesn’t value reading.

The Daughter arrived at secondary school ahead of most of her peers when it came to reading and writing.

If she’d been good at maths, there would have been prizes and pushing to get her even further ahead. Instead, in her own words, she “learnt nothing” while everybody else tried to catch up.

She’s now studying English at A-level and is constantly frustrated by other students’ lack of basic skills. Skills that she learnt back at her village primary school with a headmistress who, it has to be said, was an advocate of reading.

What about her brother? Keeping him reading, a few months off the age of 15, hasn’t been easy. The biggest problem has been the lack of suitable books. Publishers seem to presume that if a lad is reading at this age he will be a boring brainbox and interested in spies and private detectives.

It’s meant pushing him up to books like Rock Wars, featuring teenage band members with all the problems of girls, drugs and goodness knows what else. Another hit was Spud, a misfit boy finding his way at a tough boarding school.

But the absolute saviour of his love of reading has been autobiographies. He has devoured tomes from motorbike racer Guy Martin, Olympic gold medal winning showjumper Nick Skelton and Formula One racing driver Jenson Button. Teachers have been asked to recommend books to keep him reading but never come up with anything.

It’s hardly scientific research, but for the purposes of this article, he was asked how many children out of his class of around 30 read. “There are three of us who always have a book in our bags,” he said. “A lad who’s a nerd, a girl and me.”

This is an absolute disgrace. It’s easy to blame schools. But they probably have enough on with big classes and vastly differing abilities. It’s parents who should hang their heads in shame.

There are beautiful books on offer in the aisles of almost every supermarket. “Two for £5” and often even cheaper. Instead of a book to stimulate them, young children are handed iPads to shut them up.

Thinking aloud about obesity, the cost of a fizzy drink and a packet of sweets is probably more than a little book.

Former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo is a hero of mine. He hit the nail on the head when he said the joy of reading is being destroyed for many youngsters because of testing.

Rather than the cosy story times of our youth, he says literacy is now taught “fearfully”, with the emphasis on jumping through educational hoops rather than instilling a genuine passion for reading.

Thankfully, Yorkshire is doing its bit to fight against such shocking statistics as those from the National Literacy Trust; which found that one child in ten doesn’t own a book.

Broughton Hall, near Skipton, is hosting the county’s first children-only literature festival on September 29-30.

While it will doubtless be a certain type of parent who will take their children along, it restores a little faith to hear that 200 local schools will be taking part. If just one of those children develops a lifelong love of reading, it will have been worthwhile.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.