Thursday, 13 December 2012

Reading fiction at school

is apparently a thing of the past - well, almost. Our national newspaper had reports yesterday which stated that fourth year students were ranked twenty-seventh in the world with respect to reading skills.
I am not sure what that really means. I am always nervous around such "statistics" because there are so many variables that they can be meaningless. All the same it is fair to say that many children are reading less, much less. They are reading less than they should be if we want them to be fluent readers.
As a child I read long before I went to school at all. As I grew up I read before I set off for the day at school. I read at school - often getting into strife for reading a book when I should have been doing something else. I read after school and in the evenings. I read at weekends.
I admit I did not have the competing interests of sport, ballet, music, drama class or any of the other things which are now considered essential. I was not in before and after school care the way many children are. My siblings and the other children of my generation did not have those things either. We most certainly did not have computers or mobile phones or any sort of "screen games" or even television to take from reading time. We read because it was a major way of entertaining ourselves. Even children who were "not great readers" tended to read.
Now there are many other things competing against what was once "reading time". Some children are actually time-poor. They have music practice to do or an extra cricket or football training session. At after-school care they may do their "homework" but they will then be encouraged to "be active" rather than read.
Parents and even some teachers then mistake "reading" a computer screen or activities like sending text messages as being the equivalent of reading a book. They are not. They are quite different sort of activities which require other skills.
Of course children still read but what they are reading and the purposes for which they are reading are often very different. They read computer screens. There will often be images and sound. They read them to obtain information, usually factual information related to some classroom activity.
They will read the material which is set as part of the learning experience at school. Some of that will be fiction but much of it will be non-fiction. "Reading" can now include watching a film, looking at a poster or comic. Yes, they are forms of reading.
They are not however like reading a novel.
It is reading novels which counts in my book. Reading a novel should mean being able to experience someone else's world for a short time. We should be able to identify, empathise and sympathise with characters who were strangers when we first met them. The characters should grow in our minds as we use our imagination to fill in details that are not actually stated but just hinted at.
Reading a book, especially a novel, is not in the least bit like "reading" (watching) a film. The film does almost all the work for you. It shows you what the characters look like, how they sound and how they behave. It leaves little, if anything, to the imagination. When a film does require us to use imagination much more of the work has already been done for us. We are being given much more direction about how we should think.
School library services are being cut back. Some schools no longer have libraries. There is "no time" to visit the library at weekends - and "no time" to read in between. There are even educators who say this does not matter, as long as the child "can read to obtain the necessary information" - forgetting that there is a difference between obtaining information and using the information you obtain. That requires imagination, imagination that comes with reading fiction for pleasure.
All this bothers me. It has implications for writers as well as readers.

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