NABOKV-L post 0011339, Sun, 17 Apr 2005 11:24:24 -0700

EDNOTE. How marvellous that World Book Day falls on VN's birthday.

Restore pleasure of reading for the young
Age (subscription) - Melbourne,Victoria,Australia
... On April 23 in 1616, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. Moreover, April 23 is the birthday of Vladimir Nabokov. ...

Restore pleasure of reading for the young
April 17, 2005

With competition from television and computers, books struggle to win children's attention. There is a solution at hand, writes Christopher Bantick.

Saturday, April 23 has been designated by UNESCO as World Book Day. The idea is simple. By setting aside one day, UNESCO seeks to promote reading and publishing. It is an entirely appropriate choice of date. On April 23 in 1616, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. Moreover, April 23 is the birthday of Vladimir Nabokov.

Celebrating books on April 23 originated in Catalonia. On that day, St Georges Day, a rose is traditionally given as a gift with each book sold. Imagine if this happened in Melbourne. The moment would be unforgettable.

But World Book Day could have another purpose. There would appear to be no better day to emphasise the importance of reading, particularly for children.

For kids, books compete with the distractions and attractions of the technological age, something that has concerned Ken Rowe, chairman of the Federal Government's committee exploring children's reading levels nationally. On his appointment in December, Dr Rowe said: "One of the things that does make a difference is parents reading to their children at home and turning off the television. Is that common sense? Yes it is."

Dr Rowe's view that children should be encouraged to read early through parental involvement is endorsed by the Australian Council of State School Organisations. The council represents more than 2 million parents of children at government schools. In a submission to Dr Rowe's committee, the council noted: "To wait until a child enters school is to be behind the eight ball, a situation which might never be remedied for some children even by the most effective teaching at school."

To achieve better reading performance before school, the council has called for publishers and federal and state governments to jointly fund a national home reading campaign. The cost? About $40 million annually.

Joining the debate over uneven reading competence in schools, the Victorian Primary Principals Association last month called on the Victorian Government to provide an extra 68 cents a day for every child in years 2 to 6 who needs assistance with reading.

Why should this be necessary? Well, according to association president Fred Ackerman, Victorian schools do not receive state government funding for literacy intervention programs after year 1.

Bearing in mind the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority figures which show that 10 per cent of children in year 5 are not reading at the benchmark level, 68 cents does not seem exorbitant.

Underpinning the motivation of federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson to probe national reading standards lie some disturbing figures. In May last year, it was shown that 24,000 year 3 children, including 6470 in Victoria, had failed to meet the national benchmark in reading and basic literacy.

In 2003, in Victoria, one in five year 10 students could not read easily. Imagine if 20 per cent of a car manufacturer's cars were faulty or 20 per cent of supermarket eggs were risky. The public outcry would be deafening.

Add to this the fact that according to a 2002 OECD survey, poor reading ability has a knock-on effect. More than 48 per cent of Australian adults had problems with reading and writing.

Given that the problem with some children's ability to read has been well diagnosed for several years, what is the remedy? It may come down simply to ensuring reading is a pleasurable activity. In this, schools would appear to have a critical responsibility.

Research in Britain points to one clear outcome: if the pleasure of reading diminishes, so do literacy levels. The idea of "here's the book, now write the essay" is a sure way to kill the joy of books.

At least this is the view of David Bell, chief inspector of schools in England. Promoting World Book Day, Mr Bell observed in a speech reported in the Times Educational Supplement last month: "Teachers are using poems as literacy manuals, mining them for their use of adjectives and metaphor so that the beauty of the language is lost.

"If we don't expect pupils to engage passionately with what they read, why should we be surprised when we can't see the point of taking a book home?"

Australian studies support the essential aspect of pleasure being associated with reading competence. In a report titled Influences on Achievement in Literacy and Numeracy, the Australian Council for Educational Research's Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth said in October 2003: "Enjoyment of reading has been associated with the literacy levels of students in primary schools and junior secondary schools. Similarly, higher levels of determination to do well, confidence and self-efficacy has been associated with higher levels of reading literacy among 15-year-olds."

Perhaps what has to be reclaimed on World Book Day is the essential joy books and reading can give. Francis Spufford, the UK Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 1997, highlighted the unique pleasure reading gives in her 2002 book, The Child that Books Built.

"There were times when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed. Suddenly a thousand crystals of perception of our own formed, the original insight of the story ordering whole arrays of discoveries inside us, winking accuracy."

Deny a child this, and you deny the world.

Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer.