Literacy, wot literacy?

I'm sat watching the evening news and I'm listening to a report about a decline in literacy, due apparently to a dwindling interest in book reading. 1 in 4 children will never read a book outside school, intones the BBC news man. Other statistics are thrown at me as I watch the news reporter build his case. 1 in 3 do not own a book and 1 in 6 children will struggle with their literacy, he says. Figures quoted are obtained from the National Literacy Trust he says. The BBC TV reporter goes on to suggest that kids today are "increasingly bombarded with new technology and new distractions" (images of children playing shoot em up computer games flash across the screen at this point), and that "the place of books, literacy and quiet reading ranks highly amongst the concerns of many parents." The BBC reporter balances his report by conceding that "kids do read, but increasingly it's not books." Well, that's helpful. I want to ask - so what do they read? But already, the channel has moved on to the sport.

Here's what I know: Increasingly, sales of books on Amazon are in electronic form, and this year, for the first time, the online store has reported that the sale of e-books has outstripped conventional book sales. But e-books are usually the preserve of adults. Few school children that I know actually read books on Kindle. Most don't own a Kindle or other e-book reader. Do children read other things then - on the Web for example, or on their games consoles? More to the point, what are kids interested in reading? Should they, as is the view of our esteemed Education Secretary Michael Gove, be tasked to read 50 books a year? What a splendid way of turning kids off reading altogether! I know that if I was forced to read a book a week when I was in school, I would very quickly have found a way of losing those books in a ditch somewhere.

I'm sceptical about the BBC news item, and the idea it is propagating that literacy is on the decline. Hasn't it always been thus? I can recall government statistics from when I was at school (oh so many years ago) saying that our country was in trouble, because of the poor standards of 'reading, writing and arithmetic.' I was messaged on Facebook yesterday by another Steve Wheeler (no relation, and certainly no friend) who going by his picture, is probably of the same generation as me, but behaving more in compliance with his shoe size than his age. Out of the blue, on my wall this stranger had written 'Your not Steve Wheeler I am.' By response I kindly pointed out to him that the correct grammatical construction should be 'You're not Steve Wheeler. I am.' He fired back a snide comment. I blocked him. No matter. The key point of this story is that every generation has its literacy problems. Is there really such a decline in literacy? Has it changed all that much from previous decades? If there is a decline, should we really be placing all the blame on 'new technology and new distractions?' There are so many questions. It's a complex issue.

The statement that new technology is distracting, and the implication that it is doing damage to literacy needs to be challenged. I would point those who are sceptical about the role of technology in education, and those who claim that it has had little impact on learning to the time just before Gutenberg introduced his movable type printing press. Literacy - reading and writing - was then the preserve of the elite, and it was zealously protected. Post Gutenberg, it became a world in which all could participate, and knowledge grew exponentially as a result.

Perhaps we should not be asking why children are reading less print books. Instead, maybe we should be asking 'what are the new literacies they will need in the society in which they will grow up and work?' Perhaps we should look more at how the emphasis on literacy is changing to digital literacies (notice the plural) ... the transliteracies and other new skills of communicating across social media and mobile platforms that are already assuming greater import as they transform our society.

No, I don't think the demise of the printed book is nigh. I believe there will be a place for print for a long time to come. And there are still many, many children who continue to read and enjoy books. But print is now having to move aside to make some space as newer methods of mass communication take a more prominent role in our world. The way we represent knowledge, the world around us, society, community, reality, is changing. So there you have it. Those are my thoughts on the topic. Do you read me?

Image source by Guldfisken

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Literacy, wot literacy? by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Great post! Like you, I lament the fact that more and more people - even teachers - are making basic errors in their speech and writing. I'm not talking about formal vs. informal English...I'm talking about errors that are unforgivable in any context.

It's time for those of us who value the importance of clear communication to stand up. Thank you for doing so.
José Picardo said…
This sort of "evidence" is banded about regularly. None of it holds any water. As you point out, it never has.

I must say though that I disagree slightly with the previous comment. Errors are always forgivable. They're a learning opportunity. Failure is the best teacher I have ever had.
I'm just ending the year with a wonderful first grade. Not only do they love to read books, but they love to create digital stories on places like Storybird. They also have spent a lot of time honing their reading skills on the numerous interactive websites on line. I'm very excited about the direction of literacy in the 21st century! (I'm checking now for grammatical errors, and I do hope I caught them all!:)
Lejon said…
I came across the other day an interesting site ( where I found something that relates well to your blogpost. One of the presenters said: "we don't realise that there is a lot of patience out there" meaning that young people can spend days (weeks, months) on online games requiring a lot of reading and writing. There are also a lot of people who are very eager to follow blogs on something they are interested in. I guess there is a lot of reading "out there" if not in printed books
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Kosta. I particularly dislike the poor use of apostrophes. I'm always pulling up students on this, but perhaps the worst mistakes are phonetic ones, where students write as they hear the words. An example is 'I could of' instead of the correct 'I could have'
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Jose and you are right. I suppose in reality, all errors are OK as long as we learn from them. There is currently discussion about this very same issue on Twitter. The endnote would be that the whole of society and all our knowledge thereof, is founded upon errors and mistakes. If we didn't learn from them, where would we be as a species?
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Barbara. The joy of seeing kids learn eh? That's the reason we all came into teaching in the first place I think!
Steve Wheeler said…
That's a great observation and useful piece of information Lejon. Many thanks for stopping by!
theok said…
I agree with all you say here Steve, I would also add a more tangible explanation why some kids are not reading might be - the 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK. This was the subject of last nights #poorkids documentary, also on the BBC, Here we heard the children's voice. Children with no comfortable place to read, living in damp mouldy conditions where a book would be unlikely to (physically) survive for more than a few day and - they certainly were not “bombarded with new technology and new distractions." As Jezza Neuman the director says in the blog “Kids aren't stupid remember - they get it”
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for the 2 links Theo. I think you have something there - I can believe that a fair proportion of poor literacy could be the result of bad housing/home conditions and a general lack of finance.
Sandy said…
Thanks for this post Steve. I, like you, am constantly pulling up students for their grammar. I also wonder what to prioritize when it is really bad. I find myself wondering what will next be acceptable in the constant changing way of our language. Will it be 'your' for 'you're', 'alot' for 'a lot' and will the possessive apostrophe completely disappear? I am just trying to recognise that that language does change, must change, and what will become acceptable next. On a brighter note, I am excited about the new digital literacies and consider that my challenge it to see how I can adapt to use them to underpin some of the teaching that I do. Often I have to spend more energy convincing my colleagues than my students!
Stephan said…
Reminds about how smug I used to feel when I, as a non-native speaker, corrected the spelling, grammar and usage of English teachers ;-)
"I'm sat"? Gasp! "I'm *sitting*..." surely?

Apart from that, perfect as far as I can see ;-)
Steve Wheeler said…
Ah, but Dughall my friend, just how far can you see? From where you were sat in the front row during my speech in Newcastle on Friday, did you spot my slide quoting David Crystal: "The ethos of 50 years ago was that there was one kind of English that was right and everything else was wrong....There’s a new kind of ethos now.” - Just saying... ;-)
rmannell said…
I am sure there was much discussion about the harms of printing books in English for the common people when previously publishing was restricted Latin and the church. There must have been great concern for allowing people to lay their hands on books they could understand. As times change, so does the way we deal with information. Literacy is changing to include more than the hard copy books and should be embraced for the good it can bring while care is taken to eliminate problems that may arise.

We learn from the mistakes we make but have to be given the chance to make them. Is the decline in book ownership a mistake? Not if they are replaced with other means of disseminating information. Personally, I love books and have many but I also embrace the new.

Perhaps it's better to go back to hand written Latin text to preserve what's right according to the select few. :)
davidmiller_uk said…
Good article, Steve. Apart from the general thrust of your piece about the evolution of new and varied digital /social literacies (which I agree with), I would just like to add how rich it is for the BBC to be lamenting (by implication) this 'decline' in traditional literacy when vast acres of its own output depends entirely upon an emotionally, culturally and intellectually 'illiterate' audience!

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