Do you have a favourite past-time? Something you love to do at the end of the day to unwind? Perhaps you’re a movie buff or enjoy exercising at the gym. For me it’s reading. I don’t think there’s anything better than curling up with a good book at the end of a long day to unwind.
Some of my earliest memories are of books, of my parents reading to me while I lay in bed and looked at the pictures. I often think that without those experiences I wouldn’t be who I am today. Reading is such a large part of a writer’s life; if you don’t take the time to read, you can’t develop the skills to write. But reading has never felt like a chore to me, largely because all of those stories when I was younger made me dream of my own.
If someone had told me when I was first learning to read that I’d become a writer later, though, I’m not sure I would have believed them; at the time I probably wanted to be a palaeontologist as Jurassic Park had just come out. At that stage I found reading difficult. I loved books but like many children – boys in particular – my literacy skills developed late and it frustrated me.
Generally the average age a child learns to read is 6; some learn earlier, others a little later. I was 7 & a ½ when I could finally read and write competently. Perhaps that’s not unusual for some children but it was extremely frustrating for me; my teachers said that I’d pick it up on the way, but the curriculum – at least 18 years ago – made few allowances for those who didn’t develop as quickly or were ill. Subsequently I kept falling behind.
Finally my parents, who’d gone against their instincts on my teachers’ advice, taught me themselves. They bought a range of reading aids to teach me phonics and they read with me, particularly my mother, for hours every night; I can still remember the Bangers & Mash series, about two mischievous chimpanzees who kept getting themselves into all kinds of trouble. They made learning fun!
Before long I had moved on to the Berenstain Bears series and Dr Seuss, particularly The Butter Battle Book. Soon I was analysing and sounding out difficult words on my own, associating words with different meanings, and my reading speed improved greatly. I devoured everything, hungry to learn, and within a month I’d leapt ahead and was reading books my parents had read to me like Matilda, The BFG and finally Narnia by myself.
My writing skills improved at the same time; my spelling was awful but my grammar and punctuation had come a long way. And before long I decided to write my first story. It was a Batman story, probably inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman film which I saw on TV. I didn’t like the ending, so I changed it; I killed Batman – so even then I had a thing for macabre endings.
Within six months I was reading and writing at an advanced level. I’d moved past most of the children in my class and within three years I was comfortably reading Dickens and Conan Doyle, which showed how far I’d been held back. I was writing poetry and short stories regularly and English became my best subject. I’d turned my weakness into my strength; that’s something I’m still proud of today.
That’s why literacy is so important to me, not just as a writer but as a person; I know how frustrating it is to feel like you’re being left behind, and the joy when all those hours of hard work finally pay off.
It saddens me when I hear of the falling literacy standards in Australia, of a growing gap between boys and girls in English and language skills. Officially Australia has a 99.0% rate of adult literacy, one of the highest in the world, but that doesn’t take into account the widening gap between genders, nor the differences in various socio-economic and cultural groups, nor the retention rate for school students (particularly among older boys, whish is rising). Many people are aware of these problems but we hear few solutions, other than the government’s “education revolution” which no one understands.
The situation with Indigenous literacy is becoming even more serious. It’s believed that by the age of 15 more than a third of Indigenous students don’t have adequate literacy skills and are disadvantaged, while in remote areas it is even worse, with only 15% of year 7 students achieving the benchmark in literacy tests. Coupled with high unemployment and mortality rates among many Indigenous communities, it’s a serious problem and something no one should consider acceptable. Yet for the most part the same policies continue to be implemented, only now under the intervention.
Likewise the fact that there are 776 million adults in the world lacking basic literacy skills (66% of them women) and 75 million children out of school is a statistic I find staggering. Surely in a modern society those kind of figures are unacceptable? Surely we can do more to help? Of course we do what we can, giving money to governments and helping to build schools and libraries, providing new equipment… but sometimes I wonder if even a fraction of the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went towards addressing illiteracy and poverty instead, would the world be any different?
I suppose I just wish that we’d be a little more responsible, that instead of giving money to corrupt regimes we’d give it directly to the agencies that are trying to help. If we made a serious dent in illiteracy and poverty in the world, it would help us as well. One of the biggest factors in poverty, terrorism and AIDS is a lack of education. The only responsible way out of poverty is to learn, to educate yourself and learn not to make the same mistakes again. If that education begins early, with literacy and other skills, then children can learn and see ways of improving their lives and they’re less likely to fall under the influence of extremism.
That’s why I like the work many of the smaller organisations and charities are doing around the world. Working at grass roots level they can have more success and make a difference in peoples’ lives. Projects like Books for Cameroon, which is aiming to establish a library in 25 schools and help 20,000 students, or the 100 Mothers Literacy Program which funds a basic literacy program for mothers in Afghanistan. These kind of projects provide a greater level of transparency and average people can support them, trying to help in their own way.
Overall, though, I think if we’re to improve literacy standards we have to change our approach. Days like this International Literacy Day help to raise awareness but it’s by building new schools and libraries and training teachers in new methods that we might succeed overall, methods that make learning fun again. We need to move away from whole language methods, towards systematic phonics. Most importantly we need to take a larger role in our children’s education as parents and role models and help them; if we read to and teach our children, they’ll want to learn.
I don’t know if I will be a father one day but I know if a child asks me for help to read or write, I’ll always try to help them. I know what it was like to struggle with reading and it’s never too early to teach a child to read, to love books – if you do then you’ll give them skills for life.
The rest will take care of itself.
“The library is the temple of learning, and learning has
liberated more people than all the wars in history.”
~ Carl Rowan
Image Credit: Reading Books At Home ~ hortongroup