Friday, 22 January 2010
Autonomous learning and the growth of aliteracy
The idea that children might learn to read of their own accord, by osmosis as it were, was memorably described by David Bell, Chief Inspector of Schools in 2004, as being , "Plain crackers". This is pretty much the standard view among modern educationalists and the whole thrust in the teaching of reading in schools today is intensive work in synthetic phonics from a very early age; the aim being of course, to eradicate illiteracy. This is a laudable enough intention, to be sure, but it is beginning to look to some as though this determination to rid us of illiteracy has left the way open for the rise of a new problem; huge numbers of aliterate adults.
Aliterate people are those who, while capable of reading, choose not to do so. A survey in the USA a little while ago revealed that the modal number of books read by the average person in the previous year was zero! In other words, in answer to the question, "How many books did you read last year?", the commonest answer given was, "None". Where America leads, we follow, and it is quite acceptable and common these days for adults to say, " I don't read books". Even well known individuals like footballers and pop stars will say quite openly that they don't read books.
The teaching of reading in schools may well be efficient, but it is also desperately dull. Reading is treated as another sterile academic skill which the child must be pushed into acquiring in the shortest possible time. Little wonder that for many children reading is about attractive and pleasurable as reciting the multiplication tables! Inevitably, this means that many children would not dream of reading a book outside school, unless is was necessary. This attitude becomes fixed for many well before they leave primary school. In secondary school, the only books many of them will encounter are the novels that they are made to read for GCSE. Of course in many cases, they will not have to read the entire book, only selected chapters. Novels are thus reduced to a means, rather than an end in themselves. Just try suggesting to a fifteen year old boy who is studying for GCSEs that he might enjoy another book by the same author. If he is doing "Pride and Prejudice", ask if he has read "Emma". he will look at you as though you have taken leave of your sense! Why would he possibly wish to read a book upon which he would not be tested?
The relentless drilling in phonics and the perception that novels are only useful in that they will enable one to pass an examination, both rob reading of any attraction as an end in itself. It has been imposed upon the child from without and against his will. As soon as the compulsion ends, he will stop doing it almost as a matter of course. It is possible that when a child is left to her own devices to acquire the skill in her own time, the outcome might be very different. Things that we choose to do for our own satisfaction are generally things that we will do again and again if we find them enjoyable. this is in contrast to those things we are compelled to do. Even if the thing which we have been made to do is fun, the element of compulsion cannot help but remove some of its pleasure. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that while reading books for pleasure seems to be increasingly rare among schoolchildren, anecdotal evidence from the parents of autonomously educated children suggests that once they do take to the thing, they read a great deal for the sake of it.
There is something fundamentally unsound about any educational system which turns the reading of books into a chore. Any method of tuition or lack of tuition which makes it more likely that young people will pick up a book without prompting from an adult is to be commended. It would be interesting to conduct a large survey among schooled and autonomously educated children and see whether or not their attitudes to reading and books really are as different as personal observation suggests.