Literacy rates do not make a good read

Children are encouraged to read more when parents and others read with them.
Children are encouraged to read more when parents and others read with them.

OPINION: When I was a kid I was an avid reader, but that wasn't particularly unusual at the time.  Many of us read for entertainment as well as education.  It's not the case anymore.    

I've just been working my way through a big doorstop of a report that shows that when our Kiwi kids were asked if they liked reading a lot our answer was below the international average, but more unsettling was that a quarter admitted they're not even confident about reading.

Once upon a time (1970) New Zealand proudly boasted being No 1 in the literacy rankings for our children.  But now we are one of the poorest performing countries in the English-language world.  We're not boasting now.  

This is not about blame. Since the turn of the century hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated to improving literacy for learning but there has been little improvement in literacy achievement; in fact we have declined against other countries.  It's not the teachers' fault, neither is it just an issue for government.

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The report, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), gives a good indication of who needs to take responsibility for ensuring out next generation is literate.

Take a look in the mirror.

We must stop expecting only schools and teachers to address this growing issue and take some responsibility ourselves.  

The report says parents are students' first teachers and in the countries that have high literacy rates parents read with their children, long before they start school.  These parents also read themselves, therefore being good role models.

They also talked to them, sang to them, told them stories and taught them to write the alphabet – we don't.

Last year, 400,000 New Zealand adults didn't read one book.  That's a lot who didn't read, probably didn't read to their children and their children didn't see them reading.  

But it's not just parents, it's grandparents, aunties, uncles and friends who all need to take responsibility for the literacy of the next generation.  It's the people reading on the bus that our kids see each day.  It's role models being caught reading on camera.  It's about proudly being a nation of readers.  

These are simple things, many of which cost only time and will make an enormous difference to how our children function throughout school and as adults.

The report made it clear it wasn't a socio economic issue – whether rich, poor or inbetween, our kids are not reading.  

So OK a few kids can't read – what's the big deal?

There is a large amount of compelling evidence that correlates reading for pleasure from an early age with literacy development, improved well-being, and educational and employment success. So, simply, reading will help make your child more successful, happier and healthier.  

And it has an economic impact.  It's estimated that illiteracy costs up to 2 per cent of a developed country's Gross Domestic Product, with illiterate people earning 30–42 per cent less than those who are literate.

I was shocked that when this report came out it had very little public interest.

Shouldn't we be worrying that as many as 8 per cent of New Zealand children are performing at the lowest literacy levels.  Why aren't we angry that over 40 per cent of 16–65 year-olds don't have the literacy and numeracy skills to participate in a high-productivity economy.

It has massive implications for our country's future.  Literacy – or lack of it – links directly to our economic performance and individual well-being.

All it takes is to pick up a book and read with a child – is that so hard?

  • Dr Jo Cribb  is chief executive of the New Zealand Book Council  


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