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Children read in Vancouver Public Library (RICHARD LAM/Canadian Press)
Children read in Vancouver Public Library (RICHARD LAM/Canadian Press)

Globe Editorial

Reading is like oxygen Add to ...

Reading for pleasure is simply not in the air these days. Children are the barometer. Ontario’s Grade 3 and 6 pupils seem to be losing the pleasure of reading. In Grade 3 in particular, just 50 per cent said they like reading in 2010-11, down from 76 per cent in 1998-99, a major survey found. A society that loses the joy of reading would be impoverished, and not just in things that money can buy.

So why has the love of reading apparently shrunk? The answer is to be found primarily at home, not in the schools. Public schools in most parts of Canada already set aside two hours daily in primary school for reading and writing. Parents need to set the right example. They need to ensure love of reading fills the air. That children’s survey tells them they’re failing to do so.

Some observers point a finger at the provincewide literacy tests. “The pressure they're under to do well on tests has diverted the schools away from teaching reading as something that’s a great joy,” says Patsy Aldana, the children’s book publisher and head of the TD National Reading Summit.

It is implausible that a brief test twice in a child’s first 12 years of life puts them off reading. Ontario has rocketed to the front of the country in its reading scores, thanks in part to its use of the test data to highlight the weaknesses and strengths of schools and boards. These are not rote tests; they explore higher-order thinking. Pupils are asked to read a story and make sense of it. They can do that better than ever. That should be celebrated.

Parents need to look in the mirror, not scapegoat the schools. They should not be passive observers of the competition for their children’s time. If their children are over-programmed, if they are rushed here and there to activities and lessons, if their only free time is spent recovering from exhaustion, they will not read for pleasure. Facebook and other social media are also absorbing great gobs of time. These media often require reading and writing, albeit in untraditional or abbreviated ways. Children may not think of this activity as “reading.” And if it is the only reading they are doing, it is probably not enough. Parents need to encourage or enforce reading time.

How can parents make sure reading is in the air? If children see their parents reading newspapers (including online versions), they will read newspapers. If children see their parents reading books (even on handheld devices), they will read books. When did smoking rates among teenagers plummet? Only after adults stopped smoking. Reading appears to be shrinking in popularity among adults, so why it should be any different among children? The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts reported a 25-year decline in the numbers of adults who read literature, until 2009 when young people 18-24 turned back to good books.

Small children love and need stories to grow. Reading is oxygen to the young, and the air should be rich with it.

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