Why we must get children reading

I will be honest, when I was at secondary school I was never a big reader. There had been a few books that captivated my interest, like the Harry Potter series or His Dark Materials trilogy but apart from that I did not read much at all. I did, however, pick up the reading bug at Sixth Form College, and have been hooked ever since.

Now, it is my firm and fundamental belief that reading is the most important activity in education. A child who learns to be a good confident reader – but also finds a passion for reading – will most likely go on to achieve great things in formal education. Someone who reads really can learn anything; all they must do is pick up a book and read it. Of course it is not all that simple, and I am certainly not saying that there is not a role for teachers in this desired method of education – what I am saying is that reading is very important to individual study. Indeed, it is a skill which becomes more important as children progress in education.

However, my feeling is that increasingly we are moving away from teaching the joys reading can incite – and I truly believe it is fair to use the word ‘joy’. In secondary school I cannot remember many occasions where children were actively encouraged to read. Of course, I am fully aware that this is personal experience, but I also know that in the GCSE curriculum it is not required for children to have read more than one book and for many, generally lower achieving, schools, this book is read in class not in students’ own time.

I have empathy for teachers. They know they need the children to read books to have any chance of passing the relevant exams but unfortunately this is a treatment of the symptoms, not the illness. Is it not startling that we cannot simply give a book to a fifteen year old and expect them to read it from cover to cover? Exams are important, but if children are not learning to enjoy reading and are not reading widely, then we have already failed them , regardless of whether we can cram them full of information about a book for a test that they may not have even read.

I believe that encouraging children to read is necessary as soon as they reach secondary school. There is a scheme used in some schools called ‘Drop Everything And Read‘ or DEAR. This is a scheme where for fifteen minutes of every day everyone in a given school reads. And they mean everyone. Not just all students and teachers, but secretarial staff and janitors. Everyone. This scheme has been very successful in encouraging young people to read as it gives them role models to look up to and follow, and creates an environment in which they are surrounded by adults that read, something they may not be used to at home.

I think the decline in reading is often attributed to the rise in technology. This may indeed be true in the sense that people do not read as much as they used to, but this does not excuse the fact that there are children growing up never having read. No one ever said it was easy, but the benefits are so overwhelming that if we do not try we are failing hundreds of thousands of children. How can anyone hope to raise their aspirations and attend university if they do not expand their knowledge in their own time? Of course, we can learn in many different ways now but we cannot let that fact make us neglect this obviously greatly consistent method of learning.

The benefits are too great. Not only will we give children a life long passion and interest, but spelling, grammar, vocabulary can all be greatly improved by just reading. As someone who suffers from dyslexia, even I noticed the difference in my spelling when I started reading regularly, and if it helped me it will certainly help others. If we wish to have children that are articulate, well rounded and intellectually curious, I believe we should do everything we can to encourage reading – it may not be something that can be easily examined and marked – but education is so much more than just grades. It is a process, and reading is fundamental to it. Let us not forget that.

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We need to start asking ourselves: what is education for?

When I think about education in this country, the first question I ask myself is: what is it for? This is a very important question: one that we really should be perpetually reassessing. But we are not. This question has got completely lost in a system that does not know what its purpose is.

This question is very important to me. As someone who attended a below-average comprehensive school this question was thrown around a lot. However, it was never something I asked myself – the children who regularly asked ‘What is the point of school?’ and ‘When will we ever need this in real life?’ were usually low achievers and/or badly behaved. At the time I shrugged the questions off – I thought they were stupid and unnecessary; we have to go to school so why question what the point of it is? It is only after entering higher education that I have realised how significant these questions really are.

The British education system seems to me to be fundamentally flawed. Now I am conscious at this point of sounding like an irritating old man who thinks that things were much better in the ‘good ole days’; but I assure you I am not that guy. It is just overwhelmingly clear to me that we have lost our way. We need to forge an education system that has clear goals and constantly searches for the best means to achieve them.

We need to remember that education is a process – recently I think we have got far too interested in what we can get out of education and not what education can draw out of us. The obsession with results, statistics and league tables in our current system seems to be profoundly detrimental to the quality of it. If our system is not first and foremost creating articulate sceptical human beings who are intellectually curious: then what is it doing?

Many academics have argued recently that there is a steady decline in literacy across the board, Professor Sarah Churchwell stated on Question Time that she had seen a decline in essay writing standard over the last fourteen years. She seemed to believe this was down to exam based education. We have neglected the importance of a well-rounded education – we need to remember education is not a commodity that we can buy or sell – a GCSE grade is not a representation of any value; it is a rough indicator of the level of intelligence in this field by a particular pupil.

We must give teachers the freedom to actually teach. Just because you can get through an English Literature A level by reading a handful of books does not mean that this is the way in which you should approach the course. The oddest thing about attending a Russell Group university – as I do – is the feeling that all the pupils who attend, attend in spite of exam based education – they all gained their passion and knowledge for the their subject through extra curriculum reading and research.

We need to move away from exam based education – teaching needs to be seen as a process with an outcome that cannot easily be defined. One well-educated youngster can differ tremendously from another, and we need to acknowledge this. I personally do not even believe in a national curriculum, but if we must have one I think it should be a fairly short list of guidelines compiled by an independent committee of head teachers and university academics – and not the Secretary of State for Education.

I truly believe that the enforcement of these principles would leave us in a much better position. An education system that prides itself in these values will produce much more well-rounded, intellectually curious citizens who will be much more able to solve the problems that our country and planet will face in the future.