It is not surprising that Britain is using the occasion of Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday to take stock of its struggles and triumphs in the field of childhood literacy education. After all, Dickens wasn’t just one of the most prolific and popular Victorian writers and journalists, he was also a prominent social reformer who championed free comprehensive education for all British children. His writing was rooted in the belief that teaching the poor to read and write would be the surest way to break down the rigid Victorian class system and allow those on the bottom of the heap to attain a better life.
Although Britain has made significant strides in educating its youngsters in the two centuries since Dickens’ birth, according to The Telegraph’s Graeme Paton, one in six students still don’t read at grade level when they leave primary school. Furthermore, nearly 10% of 11-year-old boys today have the reading competency of 7-year-olds. Paton writes that this news is particularly worrisome in light of the finding, announced by Schools Minister Nick Gibb, that half an hour of reading a day can provide the same benefit as twelve additional months of schooling by the time students turn 15.
“Children should always have a book on the go. The difference in achievement between children who read for half an hour a day in their spare time and those who do not is huge – as much as a year’s education by the time they are 15.”
The British education establishment is also not measuring up to Dickens’ legacy in another way, says the author’s biographer Claire Tomalin. In failing to focus on literacy more extensively, schools are producing children with attention spans too short to appreciate Dickens’ dense and complex prose.
“Today’s children have very short attention spans because they are being reared on dreadful television pro- grammes which are flickering away in the corner,” she said. “Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel, and I think that’s a pity.”
Gibb, and the Department of Education, seem to be taking Tomalin’s warning to heart. Today, Gibb announced a nationwide reading competition aimed at encouraging younger students — and especially boys — to take up reading for pleasure by stimulating their desire to win. Although the details of the contest aren’t yet available, Gibb plans for a kickoff in September with local and regional rounds capped off by the crowning of national champions.
Some, however, don’t think that Gibb’s plans are a real solution, calling them superficial for failing to address the real issues behind the literacy problem in Britain such as outdated and inflexible teaching techniques. Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, dismissed the government’s focus on teaching reading by exclusively using phonics as too rigid and worried that such an approach might actually backfire and turn students off reading. Stephen Twigg, the shadow Education Secretary, was especially critical of the recent funding cuts to programs that provided one-on-one tutoring to students struggling to learn to read.
“Instead of inventing new competitions, the government should provide the resources and the freedom children and teachers need to ensure all children become good readers.”
Tomalin’s greatest concern is that unless decisive steps are taken now to overhaul Britain’s education system, by the time Dickens’ next big anniversary comes around there won’t be enough people around with the necessary reading skills to appreciate his work.
In the age of Twitter, who has the time or interest for 900-page excursions into 19th-century England?