Have you read any good books lately?

Not too many if you are young says Hilary Wilce. 90s children read other things
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The Independent Online
Next week sees the launch of the National Year of Reading, and anyone who hasn't heard of this soon will. If it isn't Linford Christie telling us to read and Brooksiders extolling the virtues of literacy, it will be municipal dustcarts carrying the "Read ME" logo and television advertisements urging us to hunker down with a good book.

Reading, the Government wants us to know, is vital, healthy and fun, and we should all do more of it. In particular, it wants to get its message over to young people, many of whom, it fears, are turning their backs on the written word forever.

And, at first glance, these fears seem justified. An informal survey of the children passing through this writer's household this summer, for example, showed that while there were a few avid readers among the two dozen or so quizzed, there were just as many in the opposite camp. "I don't read. I don't find it relaxing. It just isn't what I like to do," says Helen Philips, 15, of Surrey, who prefers to spend her free time riding or being with friends.

Many said they found it hard to find a book that really "grabbed" them, and most saw reading as something to be done when all else fails, but not something to go public about. Tom Hume, 16, of Kent, blanched at the thought that he might discuss a book with a friend. "I think I can confidently say I have never done that in my life."

These are the children of the screen age. To relax, they stare at the television; for a good story, they look to films; and for excitement they play computer games.

But wait. Extend the concept of reading from books to include magazines, newspapers and computer screens, and the picture changes entirely. "Oh yes", these children say, shrugging, "of course we do that."

"There has been a huge increase in the amount of periodicals children read," says Martin Coles, of the University of Nottingham, who, with colleague Christine Hall, has studied the reading of 10- to-14-year-olds from the Seventies to the Nineties.

Girls read fashion and women's magazines while boys pore over the detailed statistical information in computer and football magazines - exactly the kind of information, Coles points out, they are likely to be faced with when they go out to work.

"The death of reading has been announced many times," says Greg Brooks, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, who notes that, back in 1912, a headmaster wrote to The Times lamenting that the gramophone was luring parents from reading to their children. "But it isn't going to happen unless or until computers start to talk back to us."

His research shows that, although nearly a quarter of children are turned off books and reading by the age of eight and, by nine, Britain's children are performing poorly when set beside their peers in similar countries, the problem is not with middle- and high-achievers but with "kids who barely score at all".

In the past, such children would have filtered quietly into unskilled jobs, but in today's high-tech society they are spun quickly to the unemployed, unemployable margins.

"You can't get on well in our society if you can't read well," says Liz Attenborough, the project director of the National Year of Reading. "You used to be able to get by by paying the rent man on a weekly basis, but now you can't move without having to fill in a form. Also there's the whole question of democracy. You need to be informed about the issues to know which way to vote. But we also want people to think about the sheer pleasure that can be got from reading. We want them to see it as something more than just something you do for an hour with Mrs So-And- So in school."

But with primary schools just embarking on the Government's new daily literacy hour, there are fears this is how the new generation of schoolchildren could come to view it.

"My concern is that we're going to lose time for the drama of story-telling and reading for pleasure," says Ann Gilham, the head of Benfield junior school, in Brighton. The school, which has a refined library and a home- reading scheme, helps children make their own books and invites children's authors to school. "You can certainly improve children's ability to love books and feel confident about them," she says.

Time and attention are the basic building blocks of reading success, and research shows the earlier these are put in place, the better. Six years ago the education charity Book Trust gave free books to 300 families in Birmingham at their babies' nine-month health checks and encouraged parents to take more baby books out from the library. Five years later all the babies whose parents had regularly shared books with them showed improved performance as they entered primary school.

"Five to 10 minutes a day with a parent showing a book to their baby - we never say reading - seems to be very important in developmental terms," says Brian Perman, who is Book Trust's executive director. Book Trust schemes are now profilerating in the wake of its Birmingham success, and a new corporate sponsor looks set to take the scheme nationwide.

Yet even at a later age children can still be encouraged to develop a more positive attitude towards reading. At Ash Green School, outside Coventry, an intensive reading project with 11-year-olds has not only had a spectacular impact on reading levels but has also modified the school climate.

"The children have less fear of books than they used to. You can now see them reading in a corner without others going `Uh, boff' at them. You can find children with books in the dining room, and they certainly take more books out of the library than they used to," says Jayne Wilson, the headteacher. "Whether you like what they are reading is another matter!"

And this may well be what really fuels much of the anxiety about children's reading. Bookish parents, who see their children rejecting Swallows and Amazons in favour of horror books or football magazines, are prone to throw up their hands and lament the illiteracy of the modern child, whereas, in fact, both Martin Cole's research at the University of Nottingham and figures from the Library Association show that children are reading more than they used to. In 1996, children took out 111.5 million books from public libraries, 2 million more than in 1995, with quality authors such as Ronald Dahl and Dick King-Smith looming large among those most often borrowed.

Children who read are, it seems, in their own way reading just as much as children ever did, and probably as widely and as well. It is others that the National Year of Reading badly needs to catch in its net.