The latest programme for international student assessment results from the OECD (2009) proves this: 50 per cent of Scottish pupils aged 15 said reading was a waste of time, while a further 25 per cent said they read only when they had to.
Meanwhile, nearly 10,000 children a year leave Scottish schools as functional illiterates, and this has a significant effect on their life-chances.
The principal issue is that we teach our children to read and write at far too early an age, when their brains are not ready for it.
The result is that most children struggle hard for at least two years to master the skills, while developing an aversion to reading as a consequence. It’s a quixotic enterprise: we go to a lot of trouble to teach them how to read, while putting them off.
In Finland, children are not taught to read and write until aged seven, and for the last 20 years its educational system has been internationally recognised as the best in the world. We need to pay attention to that model.
However, there is a variety of other factors involved. Why are girls better readers than boys? As the report suggests, cultural and gender stereotypes come into play, and these tend to reinforce certain types of behaviours and choices. We can see this in adult trends, too. Women are the main buyers and readers of fiction, ostensibly because they seem to be more interested in the social information fiction provides.
However, the report is wrong to propose that boys’ lack of achievement in reading is not down to biological differences, because to some extent it is. In fact, we now know that girls’ brains develop faster than boys’ brains do between the ages of four and seven. This has to do with the rate at which girls’ brains myelinate. Myelin coats the synapses of the brain, optimising the brain’s ability to form connections. So if you’ve wondered why girls of this age seem more mature than boys, this is certainly a factor.
• Marc Lambert is chief executive of the Scottish Book Trust