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The Importance of Literacy and Teen Reading, by Jim Eldridge

Writing Teen Novels has been very kind in letting me talk about my work writing for teens over the last three months, and I thought I would take advantage of their good nature and this month do some “politics of literacy” (with a small “p”) as far as young readers, and – in this blog – non-readers and reluctant readers are concerned.

Last year in England there were riots in the cities in which people died and millions of pounds of property was destroyed. Much of the blame was laid on disaffected young people, many known as NEETs (not in employment, education, or training).

A survey shortly after the riots revealed that 60% of young males in the UK had an average reading age 12.

Another survey into the prison population of the UK found that 60% of male prisoners had a reading age of 12.

Other studies had found that a large percentage of children moving from primary school to secondary school at the age of 11 had a reading age of 7.

I’m sure you can see the connection, and where I’m going with this.

Studies have shown that many teens – particularly boys – do not read for pleasure. Many do not read at all. Many – as the studies I refer to above show – cannot read much above a basic level.

For me, encouraging literacy as been a life-long passion. If people cannot read and write they cannot fill out a job application. They cannot read instruction manuals. They cannot read election manifestos. Previously, they went into factories, but  traditional manufacturing in western countries (shipbuilding, factories, etc) have virtually disappeared; so the physical skills of the cannon-fodder of semi-literate workers (i.e. the social group from which I come – both my grandmothers were illiterate) are no longer required in most western countries. The new skills for the better-paid jobs require literacy and numeracy.

What do the semi-literate do? They vent their anger. They become a criminal sub-class.

Way back in the 1960s, when I was training to be a teacher, the Plowden Report was published, which warned that high levels of illiteracy could lead to major social problems in the future. The Plowden Report urged that more money be spent on literacy in primary schools, as it was easier for young children to learn to read than older children. The politicians at that time nodded politely and gave lip-service to the recommendations, but no cash.

What do we have now? 60% semi-literacy in our inner cities, riots, and a feral criminal sub-culture; all of which has proved enormously expensive, both financially and in human costs.

I’m not saying that teaching kids and teenagers to read will solve all social ills, but in my view it would certainly reduce the problems substantially.

A couple of years ago my agent asked me if I was interested in writing for a publisher called Barrington Stoke, who published books aimed at dyslexic children and teenagers, and reluctant readers of the same age. I leapt at the opportunity. It may seem a niche type of writing, a very small and low-profile market; but I will repeat those figures again:

A survey shortly after the riots revealed that 60% of young males in the UK had an average reading age 12.

Another survey into the prison population of the UK found that 60% of male prisoners had a reading age of 12.

Other studies had found that a large percentage of children moving from primary school to secondary school at the age of 11 had a reading age of 7.

So, for every child who reads for pleasure, a massive majority don’t. There are millions and millions of teenagers out there who have never read a book for pleasure.

I have now written three books for Barrington Stoke: DUNKIRK ESCAPE, SINK THE TIRPITZ and BOMB! (This last book, BOMB!, has just been short-listed for the 2012 Sheffield Children’s Book Awards). The response I have had from parents and teachers has been truly gratifying, many telling me that their teenage son had never read a book before, but had enjoyed my book.

My hope is that someone with reading problems will manage to read one of these short books, and next try something a little harder. And the next time, something a little harder still. These books are aimed at encouraging confidence in reading, through reading for pleasure – because reading should be ENJOYABLE. For 40% of us, it is enjoyable. For those other 60% the studies mention, it is often an excruciating and painful chore to be avoided; and then reading becomes a lost skill.

So, writers, teachers, all those involved in literature, let’s think of literacy. My publishers tell me that the basic rule is that girls read, boys don’t. So let’s get teenage boys reading for fun. It could save a life.

For details of my books and writing go to:

www.jimeldridge.com

For details of books from Barrington Stoke go to:

www.barringtonstoke.co.uk

***

Jim Eldridge bio page

The Dunkirk EscapeSink the Tirpitz (Solo)Bomb! (Solo)The Invisible AssassinAvery McShaneEarthfallPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sue Flotow #

    Thank you Jim for this article. While I am only a budding children’s book writer, with two teen daughters who love to read, all my writing so far has had male protagonists because, I guess subconsciously, I’m trying to get boys to enjoy a good story. I didn’t have the facts and figures like you have here, but they are shocking to consider. I wonder if it is the same across the western world? We lived in England when our eldest girl started school, and when I helped out in the classroom I glimpsed the world of welfare kids, with too-tight shoes causing blisters, and lunchboxes full of rubbish. These were the ones who had trouble reading, and I know their diet didn’t help – too much sugar and snack foods to permit much concentration, not to mention the squeezing of growing feet distracting them. So one wonders what happens at the age of 12, where the reading appears to be arrested. How does anyone get through school without being able to read?

    June 7, 2012
  2. Jim,
    I share your commitment and concern about illiteracy, especially among the young. Unfortunately their lack of reading skills makes the price of admission to any book too much to pay. The illiteracy problem has to be tackled head on. Interestingly enough, the solutions are and have been available for the past 40 years. Unfortunately, our teachers are not taught the most successful, empirically demonstrated methods. They are handcuffed not having been given effective strategies that have been widely successful with children and adults. They are doing the best they can with the meager tools they have been given.
    I have been teaching and using three empirically demonstrated methods for the past 40 years, have taught thousands of individuals, including disaffected youth. I continue to be amazed at how educators have failed to be sufficiently scientific to seek out and adopt known solutions. I have even seen a school for juvenile delinquents in South Chicago closed after it reduced the recidivism rates to the courts by 75% in 3 years of operation. Change hurts, but it must come.
    Once that happens, there is a chance that the books you are writing will find a youthful, appreciative audience.
    Michael Maloney
    National Literacy (Educator) Award Winner
    Teach Your Children Well

    June 13, 2012
  3. Thank you for the great post. Do you think it would be possible to introduce people to the rewards of reading without them having to master the skill of reading? Say through audiobooks, to encourage a desire for literacy? Put the content within their reach to show the doors literacy opens.

    September 26, 2012

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