Jamie Fries: Don't insist on books for struggling readers

Children are growing up in a different world. No wonder literacy rates are dropping.
Boosting literacy by using books engages children less and lessBoosting literacy by using books engages children less and less
Boosting literacy by using books engages children less and less

Books are out, screens are in. We see it every day. Cafés, restaurants, parks and cars are full of children looking at screens. Books? Not so much.

It’s easy to connect this declining bookishness to the declining literacy rates, to lament the erosion of all that is good, and highlight the evils of the screen. But let’s not be too hasty. As Douglas Adams put it: “Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works… Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” But we would be foolish to dismiss the presence of the screen in our children’s lives, and its relevance to literacy.

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Here’s an example. Recently, in a tragically familiar interaction with my son, I asked him for the umpteenth time to put his phone away. “You’ve been on the screen too much! You’re making your little sister think it’s OK to just sit there on a phone!”

“But dad,” he says. “I’m reading over my Shakespeare lines. Chill out!”

Let’s turn our attention to schools, where the burden, fairly or unfairly, lies in trying to turn around poor literacy rates. Though there have been some attempts to integrate children’s own electronic devices into the school world, through movements like Bring Your Own Device, by and large the UK school system has rejected integrating the external world of screens. Schools provide a carefully controlled technology environment that does not resemble the world of screens outside the school gates.

Of course, this is all done for a good reason. When working as a teacher, a colleague of mine was the victim of an orchestrated malicious social media campaign by one of his less enthusiastic pupils. It was ugly. This could happen from outside the school, but banning phones is an easy way for schools to minimise these problems.

Yet screens have an incredible ability to engage and empower. Let’s take some of our most challenging students – boys with poor literacy. Why are they among the most challenging? Because their poor literacy prevents them accessing the wider curriculum. Because, for a young teenage boy, being competent is closely connected to self-esteem.

For a boy with poor literacy, school can feel like a series of humiliating events that seem designed to reveal your incompetence. Better to misbehave, or as one head teacher put it, to “fail-cool”.

Technology offers these children a promising bridge. Older methods – one-to-one interventions, book-based systems – can be extremely effective. But is seems clear that they engage children less and less, and they are unlikely to reach the numbers that need support with the teachers and money available. The pupils’ expectations, set by the normality of screen access outside school, are not met. They can be bored, and because they must work with an adult, their incompetence remains exposed.

Shifting this picture to a world where the pupil works independently on a screen-based programme, without anyone looking over their shoulder, can be game-changing. Yet schools can be stuck in the past, nervous to embrace what is already absolutely normal to children outside the school gates.

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The rise of screens, and the shifting meaning of reading and literacy, is unstoppable. We must embrace the positive use of screens and technology in our schools – for the good of struggling readers.

Jamie Fries is chief executive of the literacy programme ReadingWise

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