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What Can We Do With Children Who Don’t Read?
by Anthony Horowitz
At the end of last year, the UK media reported the pretty disturbing fact: nine percent of British children are leaving primary school with the reading skills of a seven-year-old. As it happens, I’ve met seven-year-olds who are well into the novels of J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, and even J.R.R. Tolkien, but the media was talking about thirteen-year-olds—and boys are the worst offenders, naturally—who can’t struggle their way through much more than a tabloid newspaper.
I’m not making light of this. It’s a disastrous state of affairs and I believe that any child who grows up without a knowledge or understanding of books has been let down in the most fundamental and damning way.
However, whenever we talk about children and reading, I believe we get a whole lot of issues confused and that we’re slightly too prone to panic. There is a difference, for example, between literacy—the ability to read a novel or even a newspaper article from start to finish—and a love of literature. I’ve always been inspired by the latter and write because I love story, character, and suspense and basically because I want to keep people entertained. It’s the job of government and educators to look after literacy and in Britain, it’s clear, they’ve failed.
Why has this happened? Curiously, I don’t think the rise of computer games and all the other new technology is to blame. There are plenty enough hours in the day for all the things a child wants to and ought to do. Far more serious has been the decline, in nearly all UK schools, of reading for pleasure. The curriculum is simply too crowded to enjoy a few hours a week, reading a good book. I was brought up on shared texts, books that we all read together in class, which united us and gave us something to talk about. I remember gaining confidence by reading out loud. All that has gone. Many children are asked to analyze pages or paragraphs. They comment on punctuation or try to work out the author’s intentions. What they don’t actually do is read.
Of course there are homes where children discover their love of reading at bedtime, with their parents. (I always say there’s no way you can get closer to kids…they certainly won’t share their computer games with you when they’re older). But the trouble here is that there are homes with books and there are homes without books and the difference between the two is nearly always a question of money and class. Going back to those children with reading difficulties, for example, it was found that the percentage of non-reading primary school leavers rose to 15 percent in poorer, northern parts of the country. The fact is that in the 21st century, reading is the last great apartheid. We get very exercised about whether boys are reading as much as girls, but that’s a ridiculous distinction. We should be asking about poor vs. rich, north vs. south, black vs. white. These divisions will tell us much more.
And spare me, please, the well-to-do parents who worry that they can’t get their kids to read. There seems to be an assumption here that books are like vitamins, necessary for your health and that if you love Enid Blyton, all will turn out well. I always like to remind these people that I have learned somewhere that Dennis Nilson, a well-known serial killer, was a voracious reader. I have two teen boys who are polite, intelligent, successful, athletic, articulate, etc.—but can I get them to read? Only by tying them down and refusing to feed them. Even so, I’m not too worried. They’ll come to books in their own time. Or maybe they won’t. I can only do what I do as an author and try to share my enthusiasm.
There are two questions here that nobody ever raises: 1) What exactly is the point of reading and how do you define what is a “good” book? I’ve read young adult and adult fiction that is dreadfully written, pointless, violent, and banal. Personally, I have a fondness for Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. I’d like to think that one book might lead to another, but is there a sort of invisible line that you have to cross before reading actually becomes worthwhile? 2) What do adults read? It seems strange to me that we worry so much about our children’s reading habits when at least half the adults I know barely manage more than the latest John Grisham or Dan Brown once a year when they’re on the beach.
So to answer my question, what to do with children who don’t read? Well, make sure they can read. Surround them with books. Read to them when they’re young. Make books part of their life. But beyond that I think we just have to let them get on with it. Let them play football, watch TV, hang out with their friends, whatever. It saddens me to think how few people in the world will read Dickens’ Dombey and Son or The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit—but then again, I never managed to finish Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace so who am I to talk? Which is why, by and large, I don’t talk. I just write and hope that kids will discover my books and that this will lead them on an amazing journey. But at the end of the day, the choice is theirs.
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Fabulous article! You have opened my eyes to the difference between one who is reluctant to read, and one who is unable to read. Perhaps parents need to stop asking why their child won’t read, and start asking if their child CAN read.
Leona Gardiner says
I would like to share an experience related to Anthony’s teenage boys. Many years ago I was concerned about my son who fit the description of Anthony’s sons and only read sports news or an occasional biography of a famous sports figure. Recently, my son, who is in his 30’s now sent me a message from his home in Australia and said he is reading through the books by Charles Dickens. My son lived and worked in London for several years so perhaps he felt a connection. Most people do come back to loving books when they enjoyed reading early in life–I am a teacher and a librarian so you can imagine how pleased I am now and how his lack of enthusiasm for reading books concerned me when he was a teen.
A mum and teacher.
Sandra Stiles says
I agree 100%. As a teacher who has been forced by my district to used “canned” reading programs and won’t allow time for kids to have free reading, without analyzing it to death, It is no wonder our children “can’t” and won’t read.
I have a library in my classroom of over 1200 books. When kids come in I ask them if they like to read and if not to explain what they don’t like. I get 2 major answers. They don’t like the way they are told what to read then have to analyze it or they say there are no good books out there which tells me they don’t have experience in finding something good to read. You can’t force a child. My daughter didn’t read for pleasure until high school and she has now surrounded her own children with books.