Battle in Print: Won't read, can't read, don't read?

Angus Kennedy, 3 August 2008

We are told there is a crisis of reading today. Supposedly we are reading less than ever before; there are 5 million illiterate adults in Britain, too many computer games being played, not enough novels read. We also hear, however, that Harry Potter has brought children (and adults too) back to books, there has been an explosion of book clubs; more books are being published than ever before. What can we read into these seeming contradictions?

At the Battle of Ideas this year, the Battle for the Reader session will explore many of the themes above. This ‘Battle in Print’ is designed to lay out some of the background to and dimensions of the arguments on both sides, and to stimulate debate in the run up to the event itself.

Reading critical

A headline this summer ‘Authors unite against drive for toddler literacy’ screams out to be read twice. What on Earth is being described here? Are authors fallen into despair: calling for some kind of creeping financial suicide? Are children’s writers worried that if toddlers start too early they may move on too quickly to grown-up books? Not yet. Instead the government’s latest reading plan stands accused of demanding too much too soon of children. A typically Labourite unfeeling and inflexible plan for education demands that ‘Early Years Foundation Stage’ (EYFS) toddlers collect 500 milestones on the way to 69 development goals by the time they are five. Children aged only 3 or 4 years will be expected to ‘write simple sentences using punctuation, interpret phonic methods to read complex words and use mathematical ideas to solve practical problems’ [1]. Apparently fewer than 50% of five-year-olds can meet these targets. They are also to be taught to tell right from wrong and learn to respect and understand the viewpoints of different cultures. Apparently many adults can’t do that either. Which is maybe why the government wants to catch them young.

Schools Minister Jim Knight, launching a £5 million free books scheme last month, Primary Boys into Books, shares this concern. ‘Bright children from deprived homes start to fall behind less able children from more prosperous backgrounds at the age of just twenty two months. The gap in achievement opens up at a startlingly young age. A child from a deprived home has heard on average just 13 million words by the age of four, compared to 45 million in a more affluent home.’ A recent survey conducted by the government’s National Year for Reading campaign found that less than half of children are read to by their parents every day [2]. For the government to intervene and intervene early seems an obvious solution and maybe an easier one than addressing broader social and economic inequalities in society might prove to be. If nursery teachers, childminders and extended one-on-one tutoring can fill the ‘parenting gap’ in deprived families, then maybe government can hope to move more children onto the right reading development track before it’s too late.

Janet and John

The reading crisis appears to be even worse when it comes to the sexes. The issues are said to be with children who are not read to enough at home, children whose parents don’t talk to them enough, and… boys. All are set for failure in adult life. In particular, says Ofsted, the education regulator, ‘white, working-class boys are becoming an educational underclass’. The department for children, schools and families tells us ‘statistics show that boys are ten percentage points behind girls in English at Key Stage 2’. The 2002 Office for National Statistics Omnibus survey found that 50% of males between 16 and 24 had not read a book in the previous year. Research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found girls are much more likely than boys to read for enjoyment: 78 per cent of girls, against only 65 per cent of boys [3]. DCFS campaigns ‘focus on reluctant readers, those with low confidence, and boys and dads’ [4]. In other words problematic readers are a small subset of girls and all the boys.

Ofsted recommends ‘emotional support’, ‘rigorous monitoring’, ‘mood watch’, and choosing ‘texts that interested the boys’. It sounds like watching the lions feed from a safe distance. One school is actually bribing pupils with cakes for doing well in reading lessons [5]. The School Library Association has produced Primary Boys into Books, a list of over 200 books for the 5 to 11 age range; books ‘which have particular elements of appeal for boys’ [6]. The tactic seems to be just let them read something, anything, so long as it is early on, before their parents can turn them off reading for life by buying them computers and iPods. There is also a sense - present in the choice of language if nothing else - which suggests that the problem with boys is perceived to be one more of emotional rather than actual illiteracy. When exactly did teaching children to read become a matter of watching the mood swings of young boys and bribing them with adventure stories to keep them happy?

Playing at knowledge

The government is not alone in seeing a problem with the education of children from certain backgrounds. Dr Richard House, founder of the Open EYE campaign against the EYFS,  feels that ‘parts of the learning requirements set some children up for failure, particularly those who haven’t got the necessary foundations of social learning or basic skills.’ He told The Times that children who did not come from middle-class families, or those who were less academically bright, were particularly at risk. ‘They may withdraw into themselves and stop trying. Trying for them becomes associated with fear and angst.’ The anti-EYFS campaigners agree with the government that there is a problem with some families but differ as to what the right response to the problem is. They take issue with trying to teach reading early because they feel that the very attempt to teach reading to certain children can be counter-productive. They are concerned that children may be ‘damaged’ by being pushed to read too early. It’s unclear exactly what this ‘damage’ might amount to, but House is clear that it represents a very real danger. In a letter to The Times, he speculates, strongly suspects, feels it is ‘no coincidence’, that the ‘antisocial tendencies’ of 14-15 year-olds today can be traced to ‘the introduction of quasi-formal, cognitively privileged regimes of early childhood learning from the late 1990s onwards’. With the evidence of ‘certain cultural trends’ to support his thesis, he is sure that the EYFS ‘can only exacerbate this toxic and deeply harmful trend, with incalculable long-term economic and social costs to our society’. Grave dangers indeed [7].

The Open EYE campaign also identifies a problem with emotional illiteracy. It believes that ‘an early “head-start” in literacy is now known to precipitate unforeseen difficulties later on - sometimes including unpredictable emotional and behavioural problems’ [8]. In other words, they agree with the government that some children are at risk of turning out bad but disagree on the causes: reading too late or reading too early. They argue that children will ‘learn most naturally and effectively through a subtle balance of free play, movement, rhythm, repetition and imitation’. Children will come naturally to reading if you just let them, back off, interfere less because the outcomes can be unpredictable and it’s too risky. Whatever you do, don’t presume to know what’s best for them and make them just learn it, whether they like it or not. Don’t set them targets which they may fail to measure up to because the damage could be incalculable.

Many in government are actually sympathetic to these concerns and probably feel aggrieved at being attacked. While the government is right to be defensive about its ridiculously formalised tick-the-boxes approach to education, it is actually concerns about the perceived failures of traditional classroom methods that lead it to push for reading to be taught early: then it can be done in a context as much like play as possible. The Foundation Stage of the National Curriculum prides itself on achieving goals through play and group activities, not sitting at desks. Both sides of the debate share an antipathy to the formal, the academic, and the ‘cognitively-based’ curricula of yesteryear. As well as being hostile to appearing too academic, there is also a reaction against overly challenging books for children. Fun books are OK but no one on either side of the debate is arguing for children being exposed to anything difficult or complex at almost any age.

Join the dots

On the face of it, the DCFS actually has a rather high-minded suggested reading list for Key Stage 3 learners, the 11 to 14 year-olds. Recommended authors on one of the department’s websites include playwrights from Marlowe to Pinter, novelists from Trollope and Swift to Orwell and Joyce, poets from Chaucer and Pope to Auden and Hughes. The reality is somewhat different both in terms of what children actually get through in school and in terms of what the government itself promotes and funds in the way of books. The School Library Association’s ‘Boys into Books 11-14’ suggests only two of the government recommended authors: perennial adventure story favourites Daniel Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson. Only one poet makes it into their list: Benjamin Zephaniah. The reason given for his inclusion? He ‘cares passionately about: politics, racism, animal cruelty and the environment, as well as all-important human emotions’ [9]. I can’t recall Chaucer worrying too much about the environment, so the kids can breathe a sigh of relief there. Other writers include Lemony Snicket, Jeremy Clarkson, Andy McNab and Terry Pratchett. The boys are unlikely to object.

The compiler of Boys into Books, Chris Brown thinks that Japanese-style Manga comics are particularly appropriate. ‘There is a very fine Manga Shakespeare appearing play by play and if Macbeth turns up in this style it will be perfect for 9s to 11s’ [3]. He is not alone. Alan Johnson, the former Education Secretary, feels that ‘children should be allowed to read comics if they preferred them to serious literature… that teachers should consider giving boys different set texts from girls, as they often had completely different interests’ [10]. Ofsted agrees: ‘white boys from deprived backgrounds need action-packed stories about danger or sport to inspire them in lessons’ [5]. One might think that a lot of Shakespeare would count as ‘action-packed stories about danger’, but never mind.

Honor Wilson-Fletcher, director of the National Year of Reading says that the campaign ‘is a celebration of reading in all its forms ... be it song lyrics, magazines, film scripts or even their own written works – challenging traditional definitions of reading as being all about books. We must understand that all reading is valid, that it all counts and it must all be appreciated’ [11]. The danger here of course is that, if it’s all equally valid, if anything goes, then nothing is very much better than anything else either. Shakespeare goes out with the relativist bathwater and we are left with Richard and Judy setting the national curriculum. Why not? It’s all good.

Up with standards

It is the role of educators to push children to make the most of themselves, to introduce them to worlds they don’t yet know, to challenge and enthuse them. It is not to pander to them by telling them that whatever it is they like to do is actually as good as serious literature. Not only will they not believe it but they will have no respect for teachers that don’t try to teach. Boys (and girls) are more than capable of reading comics on their own initiative: no encouragement required. It’s the hard stuff they need the help with. They also have to work hard if they are to become independent readers, writers and thinkers.

In the face of this abdication of responsibility by government and teaching professionals, parents - blamed for the reading crisis in the first place - have no definite idea about how to respond. Some retreat into their homes to teach their children themselves, fearing too much discipline at school. Some keep them at home because they fear a lack of discipline at school. Others try and help out after school. All suffer under the kind of patronising attitudes that ask Dad to read just one book with the kids this holiday. Just one, whatever book you like, whatever you can manage.

Education relies on standards to be effective. If we as a society do not have a shared vision of what constitutes good literature - and what bad - then we can have no hope of exciting a love of reading in the young. We might keep them quiet, pander to them with whatever the vagaries of popular taste may place on the curriculum this year, but let’s not pretend that we played them fair when, in later life, they stay silent in a room full of adults discussing Milton, Molière and Mann. What answer will we have for young men who see no value in human universals when we were complicit in giving them a different set of books than the girls? In saying that Japanese Manga Macbeth means about as much to anyone as Macbeth Macbeth? We should remember the lesson of the 19th century autodidacts and mutual improvement societies as they struggled to educate themselves: great books are ‘the common property of mankind’.

We need to be less concerned about when is the right age for children to start reading, and how, and much more worried about what counts as being great literature, in having real standards that children can aim at. Children do develop at different rates, there are arguments too that the myelination of brain cell’s axons - important for speed of connections between sights, sounds and words - may develop more slowly in some boys. Or maybe it’s that boys are still allowed relatively more freedoms than girls, more time outside playing, and less time safe inside reading. Whatever the differences are between individual children, the one important thing to keep hold of in this discussion is that all children would benefit immeasurably from being challenged, from being exposed to the best in literature. Not all will respond in the same way. Yes, some may not understand all the words to start with. They may even cry and say that’s too hard. And it’s there that you need good teachers who can lead them through the difficulties and make reading come alive. And, yes, some may fail. But if we don’t try then we all fail.


Angus Kennedy is the webmaster for the Battle of Ideas and Culture War websites. He writes for spiked-online and Culture Wars and is producing three sessions at this year’s Battle of Ideas: The Battle for the Reader; What is it to be Educated?; and Learning Jargonese.


(1) Authors unite against drive for toddler literacy, 24 July 2008, The Times

(2) Press notice 2008/0112, DCSF, Dads and sons ‘Bond’ over spy novels - New £5 million Government scheme to get primary boys reading more

(3) Comic books ‘can get boys into the habit of reading’, 14 June 2008, The Times

(4) Press notice 2008/0002, DCSF, MAKE 2008 YOUR NATIONAL YEAR OF READING

(5) Deprived white boys inspired by ripping yarns, Ofsted says, 23 July 2008, The Times

(6) Welcome to Boys into Books 5-11, School Library Association

(7) There are hazards in early learning, 29 July 2008, The Times

(8) Open EYE Campaign, Open Letter

(9) Boys into Books 11-14, School Library Association

(10) Parents ‘hold key to child literacy’, 12 February 2007, The Times

(11) The cover is blown on teen reading, National Year for Reading, 27 March 2008


The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Jonathan Rose, Yale University Press 2002

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf, Icon Books 2008

Let’s turn a new page in the world of reading, Frank Furedi, 12 May 2008, spiked

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