Today Nicola Sturgeon officially launched the 'First Minister's Reading Challenge'. Here is an article that I wrote for TESS about the challenge. It was published in TESS on 1st April 2016.
TESS article: When it comes to literacy, let's start at page 1
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently launched a competition aimed at nurturing a lifelong love of books and reading. Children from P4-P7 will be encouraged to read as many books as possible each year and a judging panel will award prizes to schools and pupils that take part. Ignoring the fact that the challenge will also include a list of ‘recommended texts’ (à la Michael Gove) – to me, anything that can boost reading for pleasure is a good thing. Whether it’s the Scottish Book Trust, Dolly Parton or Ronald McDonald giving books away – I’m all for it. (Goodness knows we need all the books we can get with so many of our school libraries under threat.)
Given the benefits of reading for pleasure, we should be all over it like a rash in Scotland. Research shows that children, who regularly read for fun, improve their vocabulary and spelling – it can even be linked to performance in maths. Not just that, reading for pleasure has been shown to be more important for cognitive development in children from the ages of 10-16 – than their parents’ level of education. With Scotland’s poverty related attainment gap, the news that reading for pleasure can actually mitigate the home circumstances of some of our children, is something we cannot afford to ignore. In addition, when you learn that Scotland is below the OECD average for the ‘index of enjoyment of reading’, it’s clear that something has to be done.
But here’s the thing. Reading for pleasure initiatives are important – but they’re preaching to the converted. Building a reader requires three things: decoding (being able to read the words on the page), comprehension (understanding those words) and motivation. Sadly, initiatives like these fail to tackle the real problem at the heart of the attainment gap – the 20% of children in Scotland that struggle with reading. Reading for pleasure is a worthy cause – but crucially, you have to actually be able to read in the first place to take part.
It is easy to roll-out competitions, and it’s easy to be passionate about libraries and reading for pleasure. What is more difficult is recognising and addressing the systemic problem in Scotland when it comes to the teaching of reading. Our ITE courses are consistently weak with regards to the pedagogy of teaching beginning readers. Our national documents (CfE, POLAAR, Early Reading Briefing, Scottish Government’s Literacy Action Plan) paint a confused and contradictory picture of what we should be doing in classrooms. But, worst of all, there is a serious lack of professional knowledge when it comes to the pedagogy and practice of how to teach all children to read, at all levels in Scotland. If we truly want to make a difference to the attainment gap – then it is this that must be urgently addressed.