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Anthony Cleary: How can we rebuild a reading culture for kids?

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A great book is one that a young person may keep with them for the rest of their lives. Photo: Freepik.com
A great book is one that a young person may keep with them for the rest of their lives. Photo: Freepik.com

Recently, I attended a number of Book Week celebrations in our Catholic primary schools. They were colourful and creative, and showcased children’s love of literature and their identification with literary characters. They were attended by throngs of parents and grandparents.

Book Week is not new. Established in 1945, generations of Australians have participated in a range of fun activities which give prominence to the works of children’s authors and highlight the importance of reading.

In this very same week however, it was revealed that one in three Australian students failed to reach expectations in basic reading skills in the 2023 NAPLAN tests.

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I was struck by what seemed to be an anomaly. I had witnessed first-hand, hundreds of children highly engaged in storytelling, competitions and book parades, actively supported by their parents, and yet the objective data points to a crisis in literacy standards.

Sadly, the decline in literacy standards across much of the Western world is undeniable. It is evidenced in regular testing and long-term longitudinal data, as well as the anecdotal reflections of many within the teaching profession.

While having not been in the classroom for some years, I remain a teacher at heart, and I have a passion for reading. While not a panacea, I believe that reading can help address the wider literacy concerns.

The Book Week parades showed that many children are reading quality works: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Aesop’s Fables among them. But these were sometimes few and far between. The choice of what children read is critically important.

Children must have the opportunity to read “great books.” Books that stimulate the imagination, nurture a sense of empathy and inspire curiosity. They should transport the reader to another time and place.

They should reveal enduring truths, promote critical thinking and teach values on how best to live. They should be books that are read time and time again.

A great book is one that a young person may keep with them for the rest of their lives.

The books we keep and the ones we purchase reveal a great deal about us. They show the sources of influence on our lives, the interests that we have and the things that we give importance to. In a very real way, a look at someone’s desk, bookcase or personal library is a window to their heart and mind.

Sadly however, the books we gather often remain unread. Many of us are time poor. We prefer headlines to the story, the study guide instead of the novel and the film adaptation, which saves considerable time.

The books we own remain in pristine condition and we are the poorer for it. We must take the time to read.

As a young teacher, I introduced a program that I had been accustomed to as a student—DEAR—Drop Everything and Read. It provided 15 minutes of uninterrupted reading time each day.

Not of texts associated with the curriculum, but of books that have survived the test of time—of “great books.” It was a practice I maintained throughout my career, and to this day I still pursue a self-imposed 15-20 minutes for my own benefit.

The power and relevance of reading should never be underestimated or undervalued. Throughout history, books have been used to stimulate a sense of wonder and awe, convey universal truths, and to help us explore the great and enduring questions about life and death, the nature of suffering, belief in God and our personal search for meaning.

Reading not only enhances our literacy skills, but it can also deepen our faith.

Of all books, it is the Bible that can deepen our faith and strengthen our relationship with God. We must ensure that people of all ages take the time to regularly read and ponder the sacred texts and seek meaning from them. Now that would be something to celebrate.

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