By Miss England, Assistant Head of English
It’s International Literacy Day! I mentioned this to my classes earlier this week, and they responded with expressions not dissimilar to the ones I see when I hand out homework. They know World Book Day - it means dressing up. They even know National Poetry Day - House competitions and visits from poets. They did not know about International Literacy Day, however. What fun could possibly be had on a day dedicated to literacy? The sad thing is, our English department wondered the exact same thing: how on earth do we make this day fun? We knew it was important, maybe even necessary. We knew we could even justify it to the pupils… It’s very easy to tell pupils that The Guardian has revealed that in England (a country 4th in international rankings for primary reading proficiency), a fifth of all children live in a bookless home. Or that, in the UK as a whole, where the youth literacy rate is 99%, a quarter of our children have not reached the expected level of reading by the age of 11 (The Reading Agency). We can even shock them as they learn that globally in 2020, ‘at least 763 million young people and adults [lacked] basic literacy skills’ (UNESCO). But telling them that it’s important that they’re literate, and how lucky they are to be literate, does not mean they will all instantly run to the nearest Waterstones.
The worry is that in emphasising the importance of literacy - and reading in particular - we will counterproductively remove all of the fun from it. I recently sent out surveys to RGC’s S1-6 pupils to determine their attitudes towards reading and, while on the whole we are a school of readers with excellent literacy skills, some of the data revealed there is still much more we could be doing to change pupils’ attitudes to reading. Alarmingly, the most common response when asked about the benefits of reading was ‘it improves vocabulary’. As an English teacher, you can imagine my horror. Who on earth would ever read a novel in the hope they might learn some new words? Others claimed that people who read do better in their exams, which is undeniably true, but also a little bit depressing. If teens are reading only in order to get better exam results, what happens when they’ve sat their last exam? I would wager few of them would relax on a rainy afternoon with the latest Richard Osman novel or flop onto their sofa with Far from the Madding Crowd. About that last one, I can hardly blame them, but it did make me question what we have got to do to remind them that reading and writing are fun. That at one point they loved stories and that this enjoyment is lying dormant somewhere, ignored?
It’s simple: remove any sense that this thing we want them to do is a chore! So, this week, in honour of International Literacy Day, we thought we would share a few top tips for celebrating literacy:
Don’t buy into the nonsense that language can’t be fun. Play games and complete puzzles. From Boggle to Blossom, Octordle, Semantle and crosswords, there’s no limit to the different games you can play in Form and class, or even at home or during the boring half hour stuck in traffic (obviously from the passenger seat!). Set up a championship league, and you’ll soon have 14 and 15 year olds demanding another game of Boggle because they want to break your winning streak.
(I’m pretty sure this one is going to be met with outrage, but bear with me…) Don’t discourage social media. Embrace YouTube, TikTok and Instagram. I know many people believe that these are a scourge on literacy and the death of independent thought, but research has found that the number of books read by teens and young adults increased by almost a quarter last year as BookTok and BookTubers boosted interest in reading for young people (The Guardian). So while they might all be reading the same books (I’m looking at you, Colleen Hoover), they are at least reading. And through choice!
Don’t think English teachers alone are responsible. The only way to make reading and writing seem enjoyable is to prove to young people that it isn’t only their nerdy English teachers who enjoy reading. If their favourite teacher of a different subject recommends a great book, they’ll read. And get parents involved! Trips to bookshops, talking about books, reading for fun at the weekend - these things make all the difference. So next time you hear the question at parents’ evening, ‘What are you doing to encourage reading in your classroom?’ feel free to throw them a curveball!