Why literacy is not a right - and what we must do about it

I spend a lot of my time thinking about why some children don’t like reading and other children do. Of course, as the wonderful physicist Fritz Zwicky once said: ‘Some people believe in God, and some people like cherries.’ (I could be paraphrasing him there). In other words, we’re all different. You get the point.

Of course preferring cherries to books isn’t a big deal, until it starts to impact upon your ability to read and to understand and interact with the world around you.

Let me put it more clearly. One evening I was watching (on the TV – I wasn’t invited) an American Film Institute tribute to Sean Connery. It was one of those grand evenings, all black tie, dinner, lots of movie clips and the great and good (Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, you know the form ...) all getting up to say what a great guy Sean Connery was.

And at the end, the said Mr Connery slowly made his way to the podium to make his big speech. Everybody started to look tearful. I felt a slushfest coming on.

But then he said two things that really made me think. First: ‘I’d like to extend a big thank you to all the talented, creative, hard-working people I have worked with in my career. And as for the rest of you: you know who you are.’ (I’m going to keep that one to be used at my funeral.)

Then he got serious, and hit everybody right between the eyes. He said ‘I got my big break when I was five. I learned to read. It’s that simple and it’s that powerful.’

Wow.

And of course he’s right. In most countries these days education may be a right, but that doesn’t make literacy a right. Literacy isn’t something that’s granted, like the right to vote (where I live we can still do this) or the right to free speech.

Literacy is achieved, not granted, and it can only happen in a supportive environment – teachers, parents, learners and others, working together, each doing their bit.

Why does this matter?

It matters because literacy matters. A lot. Frankly, I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep if our children of today grow up without reading Shakespeare in the original (no, the Manga version of Macbeth set in space doesn’t count), or without reading Gulliver’s Travels, Jane Austen or Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the original Latin. Sure, it would be nice, but, you know, this is now and that was then.

What I do lose sleep over is a large percentage – too large a percentage – of our children growing up without the basic ability to read. And I’m not talking about books here. I’m talking about being able to look up a plumber in the yellow pages, or being able to read the labels on products in the supermarket, or to read a user manual for a DVD player (OK, I admit, that’s one too far: they are usually written in some kind of Japanglish that nobody can understand.).

These people – children who then turn into adults - may not have the right to literacy, but they do have the right to expect our education system to do all it can to work with them to teach them to read. And frankly, after all this time, we are still failing them.

This to me is probably the central challenge we face in education today. And yet, in my limited experience we don’t seem to be very good at it. There seems to be so little consensus about what works and what doesn’t. The UK government has spent literally billions trying to raise literacy levels, all to precious little effect. I’m sure this story is repeated around the world.

So in future articles it is this issue of teaching and supporting literacy (I think enabling literacy is a better description) that I want to spend quite a lot of time mulling over. Tips, tricks, suggestions and questions. Frankly, I rather think we are struggling to see the wood for the trees.

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For now, I’ll leave you with a question. What’s the difference between teaching a child to read and getting a cat down from a tree? Answers next time.

Stephen Rickard is Creative Director of Ransom Publishing Ltd. He regularly writes and presents on issues surrounding literacy and reluctant/struggling readers.