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Language and literacy

By Valerie Yule - posted Monday, 8 September 2008

International Literacy Day has been celebrated with events and projects since 1966. It still needs to be celebrated by raising awareness that there are many unnecessary barriers to literacy that are not costly to remove. Sacking principals from non-achieving schools as has been suggested, would still leave these barriers in place.

Millions of research papers on reading have piled up over the past 100 years. Millions of dollars and pounds are spent annually on research and programs. Yet there is still too much needless failure in print literacy. “Forty million Americans cannot read a food label” is a common guesstimate.

The first barriers to literacy are set up in infancy, with language deprivation, and there other barriers, all along the line. There are barriers in old age, when declining vision adds millions more people to the millions who cannot read the tiny print in packet food instructions; the tiny pale print on guarantees and contracts; the white-on-black blocks of text, so trendy but glare-inducing, in some magazines (although so vivid on the computer screens of the graphic artists); and the names of railway-stations, when small signs with coloured backgrounds are too hard to read from moving trains, especially at night.


Language deprivation for babies is becoming more widespread, as new parents do not know what is already well known. Parents take their babies to Sleep Clinics for stern training to accept loneliness, in part because they are ignorant of the age-old traditions of singing lullabies, which help bond love and language together, and soothe adult as well as child. Popular CDs for calming babies are usually either soothing music that is sometimes like a sort of hypnosis, or lullabies that have instrumental accompaniments more suitable for play than sleep. It would be great if hospitals could give to all parents of first babies a CD of unaccompanied sung lullabies from round the world, that parents too could sing, or at least play for their infants, so that from the start they were learning happy associations to the human voice.

Schools used to put great effort into stopping children chattering in class. Now there is effort to encourage them to talk in class. Sometimes children are arriving at school with insufficient language to join in, let alone start to learn to read. One such five-year-old, normal except for no speech, had been baby-sat by a TV, and his mother did not talk with him herself, because “it was no use until he could talk”.

Public outings are a marvellous time for talking with babies and toddlers. There is so much around to talk about. But you can observe many littlies in forward-facing prams and strollers, sometimes even with blankets or coats over their heads, in the way that parrots are silenced in cages, being pushed by silent adults. Toddlers may be hauled along by adults who have music plugs in their ears. Children may be told not to talk on public transport. Some families still keep up a tradition of silence at meals, or have no meals together at all. Yet talking with littlies and telling them stories is even more important than reading to them to develop their language and thinking.

Children’s books today may make it hard to learn to read because publishers have to put sales appeal above user-appeal, and it is adults who buy the books for small children. If these books are to be pored over and are not mere disposables, buyers need to be aware of important features of “user appeal” that go beyond first novelty. The print should be clear and big enough for small children to start to “help themselves” in recognising the print in the storybooks read to them, and in the picture books they look at. The words should not have colour or picture backgrounds that obscure the print. Stories should have enough text on a page to help start good reading habits with unconscious peripheral scanning and sequencing in short-term memory.

And the child is right when it wants the same book read again and again and again. A dozen favourite books are better than a floorful of once-only little “amusers” that cannot even sit tidily on a shelf. And along with the whimsy or morbidity that some adults love to give children, small children love to learn about the world through adult quality illustrations, and to have a chance to develop tastes for literature, science and technology. Children taught to value books and to treat them carefully can be given “bookshop crawls” as treats to discover books they like.

TV entertainment is rarely a good language teacher because the visuals dominate; small children need radio programs that they can listen to as they play amid the everyday life of the family. And everyday TV needs Open Primary School and Open Secondary School - not tucked away somewhere special, but on a regular channel at accessible times, not just at midnight. After all, it is natural for children to find learning entertaining, because it is an innate drive, when it isn’t being squashed. We need brilliant teachers shown teaching, as entertaining as cooking shows. As the Principal of the Oxford Dragon School explained, the qualities of an excellent teacher are to “inspire and to entertain”.


Distance learning is coming along fast. It still needs to make more adequate provision for the children who lose out in the “lottery of the classroom”. While we say “every child is different, and we must cater for different needs”, in school that must often mean learning the same thing at a different time. We could have take-home short 30-minute cartoon-graphics literacy videos targeted to different needs and abilities, that give overviews of “what it helps to learn to read” and where failing learners can find out where they are stuck, to identify and prevent gaps and confusions that are often not realised.

There are still unnecessary barriers to print literacy in some classrooms, that every teacher could avoid, once aware of them.

There are some voices that say that perhaps everybody does not need to learn to read, or that point out how literacy can be used to oppress, or that print literacy is now only one among many multiliteracies today that need to be taught, and some of these can be taught more easily.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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