What’s our excuse for so many illiterate school leavers?

I’ve been saying this for ages. That too many kids leaving school in the last few years do not have a sufficient level of literacy. But I’ve been digging a bit and the news, when you look for it, is shocking, if not entirely surprising. A study by the University of Sheffield has shown that almost a fifth of teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 have a reading age at or even below that expected of an eleven-year-old.

This is shocking not so much in that it’s come as a shock – believe me, it really hasn’t. No, what’s shocking about it is that successive governments have, between them, all allowed it to happen.

Now, of course, the Tories are blaming Labour and Labour are blaming the Tories, as if either of them cared enough about our young people being able to read properly. Michael Gove is not exactly in my good books at the moment (read, I want to punch him hard in the face) because of his idea that reading for pleasure is a “waste of time.” I’m sorry? A waste of time? Since I was very young, I have been carrying a book with me everywhere I go. All right, if I’m popping to the local shop for bits and pieces, I won’t, but if I’m going for any length of time, and/or there’s a journey involved, however short, I actually feel uncomfortable if I don’t have a book in my bag. What if I get stuck with nothing to do? I can’t imagine the horror of finding myself stranded on a train station somewhere and not having a book to read to kill the time.

This all comes straight off the back of me getting angry at English teachers setting homework when even the instructions are not clear and the text the kids have to work with has been copied straight from the internet (always a reliable source of good writing, of course). I remember one time I was helping a friend’s daughter and the instructions were unclear. It was only when I looked more closely and worked out what it actually said that I realised two sentences should have been one, separated not by a full stop and a new line but by a comma. No wonder she couldn’t work out what she was meant to do. I’m a writer and a proofreader and even I had to concentrate to get it.

On top of everything, of course, the government is closing libraries all over the place. Now, I know for a fact that libraries are valuable, for the very good reason that I would not have read even a fraction of the number of books I did when I was a child without a local library to provide them for free. My family simply did not have the money to buy me the endless supply of books I required. My reading landscape was widened immeasurably by the libraries, both public and school, and I was always in them, looking for something new to read.

So to discover that the UK is a long way down a list of developed countries whose literacy levels were studied was one embarrassment too many. Neil Gaiman had it right when he gave a Reading Agency talk about the importance of daydreaming and reading fiction. He put it very simply when he said “The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.” I couldn’t put it any better myself. Let children read. Let them discover the beauty of books. Let them read for pleasure, find the joy in it, and they will likely turn out to be lifelong readers who always have a book on their person just in case they have an opportunity to open it while they’re in the Post Office queue or at the doctor’s surgery waiting for an appointment.

There has been a recent study, though it needs further work to prove it (as if it needs to be proven), that reading fiction actually alters the activity in the brain. Well, excuse me, but… d’uh… Reading fiction teaches us empathy, forcing us to read ourselves into someone else’s place, to have their adventures, feel their fears, experience their emotions and everything else that it’s necessary to be able to do if we’re to function as decent adults in a civilised society. Reading non-fiction, I’m sorry, simply is not the same. Reading facts (however loosely the term is used in this case) is not the same process as reading a story.

The human race has always been a race of storytellers. Sitting round a huge fire after a long day of hunting, the men would tell their women about their adventures. Mothers would tell their children about the monsters that would come and eat them if they didn’t do what they were told. And who hasn’t looked up at the sky at night and wondered what’s out there? That’s a valid use of our imaginations, because if we’re honest with ourselves, there’s a lot we don’t know, and a lot which is purely speculation. And speculation amounts to the same thing – imagination.

Children are told at school that they’re “daydreamers” – I know I was. As if daydreaming was a bad thing. OK, so maybe I should have been concentrating instead, but guess what? When I was interested in what I was being taught, I did concentrate. It was only when I was bored that my eyes glazed over and I found myself thinking about something else instead.

This has got to change, and it’s got to change soon. The government are doing fuck all about it and in fact are making things even worse than they already are. And whichever party is in power, the same thing will happen. And this is clear, because the same has been happening now for a long time.

Turn the fucking TV off. Curl up with a cuppa and a book and read yourself into someone else’s world. Just don’t get me started on e-readers, or we’ll be here all night…

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