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Book famine in our schools

24 November 2003

Recent news from both sides of the Atlantic has highlighted once again the importance of reading in educational achievement and how much education and reading in general are harmed by poor provision for books in schools. Scores just out in the US show that children's reading skills have barely improved since 1992, despite all the efforts that have been made. While relatively few children are illiterate, experts say that 'aliteracy', or lack of interest in reading, is a serious problem. New figures from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that nearly half of fourth-graders said they read for fun nearly every day, but by eighth grade this had dropped off to one in five.

Television and computers become greater distractions and children seem to lose interest in reading as they make their way through school. Researcher Kylene Beers of Yale University said: 'About 100% of first-graders walk in on the first day and are interested in this thing called reading... Eighty per cent of graduating high school seniors tell us they will never again voluntarily read another book.'

In the UK the Junior School Project found that the 'school effect' on reading was 4 times more important than home background, even though an earlier study had highlighted class differences as the crucial factor in levels of attainment. The study also found that reading levels at age 7 were a good predictor of future educational achievement, with a direct relationship between the level of reading at age 8 and exam achievement at age 16.

In both the US and UK, and in many other rich countries across the world, school book budgets are pitifully small. In the US book spending is limited largely to textbooks for the youngest groups. In the UK figures revealed at the Educational Publishers Council reception last week painted an equally dismal picture. An investigation by Keele University showed that 45% of all pupils had to share textbooks. A study from Staffordshire University showed that at current expenditure levels schools can only afford to buy one additional book per student per year across all school subjects.

If children have no access to books which are fun to read and which interest them, how can we expect them to grow up into adult readers? And if they do not form and retain the reading habit at school, what will be the future of reading and of books in general in the years to come?