Children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson has noticed two deeply depressing things.
Firstly the standard of English in her fan mail has deteriorated over the last 20 years. When writing for different purposes & in different media, style variations are often necessary and sometimes it is easy to lapse. The rise in uses of “text speak” might have added to the confusion about correct spelling in some cases. But can a fan letter to a “famos ritter” really be a momentary slip in convention?
A more worrying part of this point is that most of the correspondents can’t even spell Dame Jacqueline’s name. I’m sure many of us know several people who are called Jacqueline & the various shortened forms. I can’t be the only one to try to double check each time I write to any of them, just in case I’ve got it wrong. Jacqueline is quite a difficult word. And what do we do about difficult words? We look them up just in case. That can’t be hard when your purpose is to comment on a book, which is presumably handy & has the name on the front in large letters.
So we have evidence that our children can’t spell & are not aware of that fact. And if they are not aware, they are unlikely to realise they need to improve. My spell checker wants to change the phrase “famos ritter” to “foams rotter”, which is a demonstration of the difficulties of not knowing right from wrong yourself. Spelling correctly is easier than before the advent of computers, but you still have to put in some effort.
The second and more depressing problem is that letters from British children are noticeably worse than those from other parts of Europe. How can this be? We have been focusing on literacy for quite a long time now. What on earth is going wrong?
A survey by The Works bookshop finds that the average British child owns 30 books. I’ve just done a quick count of the small bookshelf next to my desk and that equates to two thirds of a shelf. 1.5% of children have no books at all. I can’t imagine that. The survey then announces triumphantly that 10% of children have more than 100 books. I was about to say that must be around two shelves worth, but then I remembered something. The average child’s book will be thinner than my average book.
I hope that the 1,000 parents who took part in the survey were forgetting to count eBooks Or perhaps they found it difficult to come up with a sensible estimate on the spur of the moment. Or perhaps they were not a representative sample & we are merely demonstrating the problems of statistics. Or perhaps this sample are more likely to use a library than buy books.
I don’t think Dame Jacqueline’s observation can be explained by dubious statistics. Children cannot get a good grasp of language if they are not reading & listening to it on a regular & consistent basis. Access to a range of books is a vital part of an education designed to equip for life in the real world.
My Mum was a teacher. She told a story of a school inspector who wanted to test the reading of a junior school child picked at random. The children had been warned that it was important to do their best on the day of the inspection. The child read the passage well, and was congratulated. Anxious to do be helpful, the child responded “I can do better than that Sir, I can read it without the book as well”. And he did. I guess that child would have been able to spell “writer”.
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