It's very upsetting to realise that newer curriculm innovations are undermining the progress of the past: the highly prescriptive National Literacy Strategy with it's emphasis on measurable results and test scores clearly is not working. (Actually I'm resisiting the urge to say "I told you so." Because anyone with that rare commodity, common-sense, could have seen this coming.)
The Bookseller reports that a report produced last week:
... made depressing but predictable reading. The five-year study of English teaching in schools found nearly a third of all primary lessons "no better than satisfactory"; a fifth of children starting secondary school fail to reach the minimum standard of literacy expected for their age; and--important for publishers--schools are still failing to inspire children to read independently or for pleasure.The article quotes children's author Bernard Ashley : "If children aren't enjoying and wanting books at seven, they aren't going to be rushing out and buying them at 21. ... If you set a restricted diet of targets in reading and writing--the back to basics appeal to middle England--you get culturally undernourished children."
Sideline the joy of books and you don't get readers further down the line, it's as simple as that. No market for books. No writers of note.
And that is what is very largely going wrong in Malaysia too. We lack a reading culture here because kids have not learned to love books at school. School libraries are hopelessly understocked for the most part. The scope of classreader programmes limited. The set texts for examinations ... well let's just say that they are a little uninspiring and leave it at that for today because it's a hobby-horse I may not get off for a very long time. (Another day, then ...)
The kids who do learn to love books here do so, by and large, because their parents value books, read to them and take them to bookshops and libraries. Not because of what's happening in schools.
(I wrote, with very mixed feelings, sometime ago about one intitiative to put books in the hands of kids in schools.)
I think too that the local bookshops need to play a more proactive role in promoting books for children.
I was talking one day to a marketing manager of one of the bigger bookstores. He was complaining about parents parking their kids in the store while they went off shopping. The children did their "free-reading" (that great Malaysian pastime!) and then left the books lying, a little soiled and dog-eared all over the place. Why not, I said, encourage the free reading? Put piles of fun books out for kids to pick up and read and rejoice in the fact that they're in your shop and picking up books at all? Why not have some friendly clued-up folks to help the kids find books they'd like to read? Okay, so you might not make a sale today. But the process of becoming a bookworm is insiduous. Today's noisy little terrors are tomorrow's hopeless bookaholics. You are growing your customer base by caring for your youngest readers.
I'm thinking a lot about kid's books at the moment because I'm working on a very long list of children's titles to buy for The British Council library over the next few months ...