Tuesday, October 26, 2010

illiteracy - the reason why

People make a good deal of noise about the poor reading skills of children in the schools of New Brunswick. It's more important, though, to look at the reading skills of their parents. After all, students cannot learn to love reading only in school. Reading books takes time and concentration. The child has to live in an environment that encourages reading. The atmosphere created by home and parents is essential to developing reading skills. I was lucky.

Though we lived in a cramped, two-room flat, we always had room for books and magazines. My father was an enthusiastic reader. My mother was devoted to detective magazines. It wasn't great literature. But it was reading. Reading was a normal thing in our house for hours at a time.

As well, we were blessed with no television or video games. On rainy days, I could listen to radio. But daytime radio was mostly for adults. So I read. And read. It wasn't great literature. But I read children's books, and then pirate books, and then cowboy books and Kipling and Service. It wasn't great literature. But I did learn to concentrate, to imagine, to reason, and to open all that books and newspapers and magazines had for me by the time I had finished elementary school. It was by reading that I also learned the sounds and meanings of words and the structure and rhyttm of sentences. I learned to write and to think by reading.

Almost half the adults in New Brunswick are functionally illiterate. They can handle only the simplest of reading tasks, only for a short time, and cannot read well enough to follow even newspaper. Statisticians urging school reform as the answer to our reading problem are sending us off an a false trail.

It's not the schools that are the problem. One major problem is in  the parents and the atmosphere of the home. Reading of any sort simply does not happen in half of New Brunswick's homes. At that, the statistics are still misleading because the differences across Canada are not great. Most differences between New Brunswick and the rest of Canada are small, and well within any survey's margin of error. (Yes, statisticians who present you with rankings as though they were reporting a horse race are, in effect, lying.)

Canada, with the US, ranks 21st in the world in literacy. (The first are Georgia and Cuba. Then Kyrsgnistan.) About half the adults in Canada's major cities are really non-readers. The average American reads about the same level as the average Canadian, about grade seven. In the US, 42% of graduatiing BAs will never read another book in their lives. There is no evidence that we can expect any change over the next twenty years,at least. Standardized testing will not change that. Humiliating teachers will not change that.

In a good half of the homes across Canada, reading is not a normal activity.Normal activities are watching TV and playing computer games. Even in its serious moments, TV is the least effective way to communicate anything. TV, including the news, is just colours and pictures moving (that's why most camera angles are held only for seconds.) Radio is far more effective than TV in encouraging thought, ideas and imagination. But the radio audience disappears off a cliff when the 6 pm news comes on TV. And computer games are almost as passive as TV.

Nor are newspapers much help. Partly, that's because most North American newspapers are trivial or heavily biased or lying by omission - or, like The Moncton Times and Transcript, all three. Our children are not growing up in a world conducive to reading. Perhaps if the whole school day were spent in compulsory reading, it might help - a little. But putting teachers and schools into public competition with each other certainly won't change anything. The US has been using this, along with other forms of privatization, since 1984. And to no measurable effect.

Not only is our economy unsustainable if this continues, the very idea of democracy becomes absurd. How can any people have a democracy when half of them don't even have to capacity or will to gather basic information? (Let alone the basic reasoning skills to make judgements.)

The government has to get serious advice (not from a marketing institute) on how to improve literacy at both adult and child levels. As a modest start, I have offered a monthly current events at the Moncton Library. The idea is to get people interested in something so they see some point in reading about it. For that reason, I offer news that never makes most newspapers in North America. (Do you know that President Clinton, about 1998, publicly apologized for the murders of 200,000 Maya in Guatemala? Google New York Times Guatemala Clinton Apology.)

I inject differences of opinion about what is happening in the world - because there are differences - and I suggest where people can look news up on newspapers all over the world. It's a modest start. But you start by getting people interested in something they WANT to read, something they can talk about.

That's why I think schools are making a mistake in not making current events available as an extra-curricular activity. (Not as a school course. If you go that route, you might just as well make their minds go blank through compulsory reading the The Moncton Times.)

I offered to run such an activity at a local high school. Unfortunately, they are interested only in activity leaders who wear skates.

We don't have a school problem or a teacher problem in reading. We have a society problem.

Standardized testing is a North American movement to benefit private business. Statistics are being manipulated to encourage it. Within a year, we will be hearing about the next step, charter schools. Those will do even greater damage than standardized has. The effect of them in the US is proof of that as, after twenty five years of it, US scores have not risen any faster than Canadian ones - which means they have scarcely risen at ll.

1 comment:

  1. pretty hard hitting i gotta say. not too good an outlook for democracy in a more and more compicated and nuanced world.