Reading is cool and helps you find friends

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

BooksEstonians have always considered themselves a nation of readers and taken pride in the abundance of books in their homes. Yet surveys indicate that the habit of reading is steadily decreasing in Estonia, which is also confirmed by sales numbers. Regrettably, poor skills of self-expression, linguistic laxity and incorrect language use are phenomena that we are increasingly coming across. Are we really dealing with poor literacy or even illiteracy? Even maths teachers are complaining that pupils are not able to solve more complicated text tasks because they cannot read or understand the text.

Reading and writing are not just individual skills. They are increasingly linked to social abilities in society. How to help re-discover that truth, to guide new readers to literature and to encourage them to read and write were topics discussed in the Cupola Hall of the National Library of Estonia on 27 May by Jonathan Douglas from the British National Literacy Trust, who was the head organiser of the British Year of Reading 2008.

The basis of everything

During the first British Year of Reading in 1998, reading levels among 11-year-old boys and girls were studied in England. 75% of boys and 82% of girls defined themselves as readers. After five years, the corresponding results were 82% and 87%. During these interim years teachers had been instructed on how to teach children to read and write. Even though the figures had improved, it appeared that the increase in reading and writing skills was accompanied by a significant decline of pleasure and enjoyment, caused by obligatory reading. While 70% of boys and 85% of girls had experienced the joy of reading in 1998, these figures decreased to 55% and 75% respectively by 2003.

How can the joy of reading be increased among young people? Jonathan Douglas considers this a key issue, and the British government even set it as one of its political priorities in 2008. When then prime minister Gordon Brown announced the Year of Reading, he called on every official, school, library and local government to contribute.

To advance reading and writing, WikiREADia, an encyclopaedia of good practice, was created with which teachers, librarians, business people, local government bodies, publishers etc. can learn from the experience of others and share their practices. Douglas is convinced that reading is the basis of a knowledge-based society, because it develops social empathy, stimulates creativity and fosters democracy.

Potter or the Bible?

According to Douglas, British teachers have a very traditional understanding of reading and of values related to it. Entertaining literature is not considered to be a 'proper', didactic medium. When asked about the books they read, most of them replied that they read the Bible!

But what is the image of a reader in the eyes of teenagers who define themselves as non-readers?
A reader is boring and unpopular and wears glasses and shorts and socks. A reader is a bystander - a friendless geek.

Reading is not popular among young people; nor is it associated with social relevance or success.
Indeed, who would want to become a reader?! But how can reading be made attractive to those who find it unattractive?

Douglas states that it is important to begin by changing attitudes. It is necessary to rewrite the definition of reading, and to extend that definition to communication in the online environment, online reading, writing text messages and creating blogs. It is important to show that reading is not an activity by which people isolate themselves from friends and the world around them, but rather the other way round - reading helps you find new friends and acquaintances and defines a person's social status.

According to Douglas, the last three elections in England have made it clear that reading levels are lowest among supporters of the political parties that received the fewest votes. Politicians should know that 69% of voters would vote for parties that demonstrate a strong bond with reading and writing.

Reading is valued in Norway and Denmark

The Nordic countries are known for their great interest in and love of reading. The Year of Reading 2010 in Norway focuses on the impact of globalisation and digitalisation on the enjoyment and pure joy of reading and ways of reaching readers of different ages at home, in families, at school and at the workplace, regardless of the form and medium of literature.

According to a survey, 46% of Norwegians read in their spare time during the week. 67% of Internet users read online news daily. Around 48 minutes a day are spent reading newspapers. Then again, nearly 30% of the population consider their reading skills inadequate to be competitive on the labour market and active in society. Therefore, the main focus of the year is on adults who read little.

There are more than 50 million books in Norway's 2500 public and 2700 school libraries. Over the past year, just half of adult readers have borrowed books from libraries. On the other hand, reading levels are at a record high in Norwegian prisons. Yet inadequate reading skills still prevent many detainees from later growing accustomed to social and working life. This is another issue being dealt with during the Year of Reading. In addition, 40,000 books by well-known Norwegian writers will be distributed to employers. These books have deliberately been written in simple and short sentences to facilitate reading for those with low reading habits. Among these writers is Per Petterson, whose novel Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes won the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 2008.

In Denmark, a programme entitled 'The Joy of Reading' is being implemented between 2008 and 2010. The programme was launched by the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Welfare and Home Affairs. The annual budget of the programme of 4.3 million Danish kroner is used to finance school children's reading campaigns and to support young people's literary activities and kindergartens' libraries under the relevant National Action Plan.

The creative writing school in Brønderslev has held courses for young people from Denmark and the other Nordic countries for four successive years. Professional authors advise young people on creative writing and analyse the texts written by the young people themselves, which are then published in an anthology at the end of the course.
The children decide who will receive the Orla Prize - they determine the nominees, critique the books and finally vote on the winner. The Danish Broadcasting Corporation is an important media partner in the reading programme, enabling activities to be covered on TV and radio, and Internet sites to be accessed.

At the initiative of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and libraries, a competition to determine the best Danish detective fiction has been run since 2000 and ends this year. Book clubs submit their favourite books in the field of detective literature. The winner will be selected by readers from among five nominees.

Reading Year in Estonia

2010 is the Year of Reading in Estonia, too. And rightly so, because notwithstanding the sheer numbers of books published, many excellent books never reach the readers for whom they are intended. There are no signposts assisting readers in finding the right path in this glut of books. There are no broadcasts dedicated to literature. The number of book reviews published is extremely low.

Hopefully, many new readers will be reached during the Year of Reading. For many people, reading will probably mean a new challenge, a different approach and changing conventional views and attitudes. Maybe people will start reading more because they just want to - because it's fun!

Energetic and charismatic, Jonathan Douglas gave a speech at the seminar organised by the Ministry of Culture and the British Council within the scope of the Estonian Year of Reading, urging the listeners - librarians, cultural policy makers, publishers and teachers - to adopt an innovative approach to the year, to think differently, to look for new partners and to work together.

Eha Vain, cultural adviser with the Nordic Council of Ministers' Office in Estonia listened to Jonathan Douglas' presentation and shares her ideas about the importance of reading in this article.

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