Thursday, March 09, 2006

I'll tell you a story, it's about reading

I'll tell you a story, it's about reading


READING came naturally to me as a child. So naturally that the teacher, who normally read to the class when we were sewing lap bags or knitting mittens, decided to sew and knit herself and have me narrate Treasure Island for the term instead - hence I had no lap bag or cookery apron for secondary school!

I suppose my mother must have read to me. Certainly today the experts are alarmed because a recent survey shows that 38 per cent of parents do not read to their children every night. This, they say, will result in literacy problems in the future.
I say I "suppose" my mother read to me because I can't actually remember her doing so very much.

I do remember her doing something much more important. Telling me her own made-up stories involving regular characters and imaginative plots. These stories were all the better to me because they were unique. Everybody had Jemima Puddleduck. But Mama, Joe, Baba Lou and Pretty Polly were exclusive to me.

Perhaps it was because my mother is Irish. My grandmother behaved the same way. In a thatched cottage in the middle of bog Ireland, the only books in the house were prayer books, a result of modest income rather than a lack of culture. The Celtic habit of making stories up and passing stories down verbally was still alive and well in the 1960s.

Everyone loved reading and literature, but the most impressive thing was how they treasured words and remembered everything, my aunts and uncles able to recite long Irish poems that seemed to go on for hours.

Naturally, I followed suit with my own son. Yes, we had books for reading bedtime stories, but his preference was always for an off-the-cuff adventure story involving him and - usually - a Mash-type alien called Biba who landed in the back garden and was then shown round earth, and specifically Edinburgh, by the Young Master.

Fast forward 13 years and he's just scraped a pass in his English prelim.
While at his age I could discuss Shakespearean plays to a band playing, he's baffled. While I would write as much as they'd let me, he dries up after a few paragraphs. Yet he has a very broad vocabulary.

From this I deduce that reading to children and telling them stories is not the crucial factor it once was. Those now raising their own children will recall that as children themselves, reading was the major key to entertainment. Parents reading and telling them stories simply whetted their appetites and encouraged them to explore more books.

Now the competition's tougher. Why read with mother when you can watch with Mel Gibson or Matt Damon . . . or even the Disney channel, whenever you like? Why listen to her unique stories when you can set up your PlayStation and have a virtual, unique adventure?
Reading to children is still an excellent idea but parents shouldn't beat themselves up and think it's all their fault if reading skills are falling.

The worldwide electronics industries, satellite TV, the availability of computers and development of the web and downloading technology . . . all things that weren't a factor in bog Ireland and fill the adventure and entertainment gap. . . just might have something to do with it.


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