in schools," the Prime Minister announced over the weekend, "I want to see phonics back on the curriculum and more children doing more reading. We have to raise the standard of literacy in Australian schools."
Well, that was the message. She does want a "reading blitz" and she does want phonics taught. The standard of literacy does need to be raised.
The problem is that this is an election year sort of announcement. Last year was the National Year of Reading. It is the sort of announcement that, had the Prime Minister been genuinely concerned about reading, she might have made then. Yes, call me a cynic if you like.
I would like the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister and make some points to her.
Yes Prime Minister, phonics is an important part of learning to read. I have taught phonics to a non-speaker learning to read, "Think the sounds in your head Peter." I wonder how many times I said that?
It is not the only part of learning to read but it is an important one.
I would also like to tell you Prime Minister that children need time to read.
Yes, reading happens all the time in school but I think we are talking about more than what happens in the classroom? If we really want children to read, read for essential information outside of school, read for life-long learning and read for pleasure, then we need to make sure children have time to read.
The school curriculum is over-crowded. My own feeling is that at least some of what is on the school curriculum could be cut and no harm would be done. Talking with children, parents and teachers it seems that much of the "learning" is superficial anyway. Perhaps it would be better to teach less and allow at least some children more time to read alone and follow their own interests. Guided reading might actually produce better informed children than trying to cover vast amounts of information at a superficial level. Does that worry you Prime Minister?
Many younger children are short of time outside school too. Their days are now filled with adult supervised activities. They are encouraged to "be active" rather than read when in out-of-school care. They go to music, dance, drama, swimming and other sports classes. They have other screen-based activities. All of these compete with reading time. Yes, I know physical activity is important Prime Minister and that we cannot keep children away from their screen time but - if you want time for reading - then something needs to change.
And then, Prime Minister, there is the need to supply things to read. Once we had libraries in schools. They have, at least where I live, been largely renamed "resource centres" and their primary function is no longer the supply of library books. Their activities are screen based. Their function is to entertain as well as educate. Some schools do not even have resource centres any more. They say that, with the introduction of screen based learning, they do not need them. The books are on the screen. It is not the same as browsing a library.
Many students will never go beyond the books on the screen. Perhaps that does not bother you Prime Minister? As long as the child can read what is there you can control what they are reading. As long as the textbooks favour your point of view this is probably not an issue for you.
Recently I had occasion to look closely at the shelves in three different libraries used by children. Yes, there were a few new books but the majority of the books were thin paper backs on cheap paper. They were tatty. About one in five of them was labelled something like "make your own adventure" or "Sweetheart High" or "Babysitters" etc. Oh yes, they are borrowed, they are obviously read and perhaps enjoyed but they almost certainly do not provide a challenging or satisfying read for many children.
Other material was, quite frankly, depressing. It lacked hope and humour. It lacked depth. There were Harry Potter not-quite-clones, vampires and violence, death and destruction. There were light weight books which had obviously been commissioned to try and encourage poor readers.
And yes, of course there were some good novels - but less than there should have been. I also noted that many of them were reprints from past years. That delights but also disturbs me. I am delighted that children are getting an opportunity to read those things if they have the time. I am disturbed that there was less evidence of sound new writing on the shelve than there should have been.
Those responsible for trying to fill the shelves and then to get children to borrow expressed the same concerns. They say children have less time to read Prime Minister. They say there is less money for books for reading for pleasure. They say that, while publishing for children is happening, much of it is going into what is perceived as "marketable" and that they get caught up in "series".
I suppose children are reading Prime Minister but I think we need to rethink the time they have to give to it and what is available for them to read. Is that too much to ask or are you merely concerned the next generation might not be able to read the election material thrust at them?