Open Eye: First Thursday: Lust for literacy

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The Independent Online
Encouraging literacy among children (or anybody) strikes me as a bold move for any government to make - even if it is only in the form of a comparatively measly pounds 1,000 book token for each school.

Few things (the other that springs to mind is Christianity - which relies heavily on the printed, if not these days widely-read, word) can have caused so much havoc or unrest in the world as the ability to read.

I blame the 1870 Elementary Education Act, myself.

Once the masses learned to read, they realised how they were missing out. They realised that they were missing out. Until then, they had little option but to believe what they were told. And if that was that the man in the big house would look after them, and that all his decisions were good, well, who were the great unwashed to challenge that?

But then along came the printed word, stretching to reach an audience hitherto deprived of learning beyond the oral tradition. There were newspapers, posters, books and booklets, manifestos, even. And people were able to read and to learn how the other half lived.

And they either hated it, or wanted some of it (or possibly both). They wanted a vote, for a start - all of them. Newspapers had to be designed especially for women.

It created a lust for literacy: mass circulation newspapers and paperback books and public libraries. Newspapers increased their sales by offering free books to regular readers - the works of Dickens, encyclopaedias, histories...

The trouble was that if you had access to a printer or a copier you could say just about anything. That was why Russia's communists - who had used the advantage of print in building their revolution needed to license printers and typewriters in order to maintain it. They clamped down not on literacy, but on reading matter, which is effectively the same thing. It was against the law, for example, to import The Bible, or Playboy, into the Soviet Union.

The Daily Mirror, the forces' paper, won the general election at the end of the second World War and the Daily Express, with a circulation of four million, won it back for the Tories. In the 60s, the Mirror, now with a daily readership of 14million - and what's that? more than a third of the literate population? - returned Labour to power, vacillated and lost it, regained it... and so it might have gone on were it not for the decline in reading which followed the advent of mass televiewing.

The trouble is that it is not good enough to teach children to read - that produces nothing more than a nation of Sun readers (and although that newspaper is supporting Labour this week, it is surely not exactly what the Government has in mind).

No: we need to teach them to read books. To devour books. To wallow in grammar. To demand good and better books.

Nobody who has recently interviewed a graduate (let alone a school leaver) can have been impressed by the evidence of a standard of literacy as it is expressed in spelling, in grammar or in the use of a dictionary.

This may be because an entire generation of teachers missed out, itself, on learning grammar as a result of temporarily-imposed "new" teaching methods, which included the idle idea that "spelling doesn't matter - it's what you say that counts."

Now, I am aware that 36,000 teachers took degrees through the OU between 1971 and 1990, but I am assuming - because OU students read a lot and rarely start their courses directly from school - that they are not in this category, that they are the ones who, as we used to say (in the days when we were aware that we were saying it), know how to write proper. In any case, I'm not here to attack our alumni. No: it's the other lot that I'm knocking. But I would like to know if I am wrong.

Perhaps the books should go first to those other teachers. They might give them some ideas.

(I realise now that I have unintentionally invited all academics to pore through the pages of Open Eye and The Independent and search for unintentional spelling errors. Fair enough: but bear in mind that you are looking at a similar number of words to the content of an average novel, and that at noon yesterday it was nothing but blank paper. Bear in mind, too, that this is not being put forward as an excuse.)

The other government initiative that appealed to me was John Prescott's encouraging parents to make their children walk or cycle to school - even if only on health, rather than on societal, grounds - instead of chauffeuring them.

Even more than darkening nights, the increase in morning traffic - and of cars parked crazily on pavements near schools - is the sign that the autumn term has started.

Where I live, a five-minute walk to the newsagent's can take more than half an hour by car, once "the school run" has resumed.

It was clearly time that something was done.