My son is 18 months old. Soon he’ll be at that age when you stop counting the number of words he can say. He’s up to seven. The sixth one was “Gruffalo”. His eighth word will probably be “Siri”. I’m lucky I can make a joke of it.
For nearly 800 million adults around the world, reading can only ever be something done to them. The internet came and put education at the fingertips of more people than ever before. New ideas and data insights are improving school standards all the time. Yet illiteracy rates are merely being chipped away at, little bit by little bit.
By 2020, 90% of the world’s over six-year olds are likely to own a mobile phone. Just think about that - there’ll be more people who can work a phone than can read or write. If this was health or homelessness or famine, we'd be talking about a humanitarian crisis. Yet illiteracy will likely be a major contributor to all three. Victims of a poor or entirely absent education, their illiteracy is the price they now pay. It is a heap of waste that seeps unnoticed by others into even the most basic parts of a day - a street sign, a menu, a tweet becomes the thing of subatomic quantum physics. Books are too lofty an ambition, so they remain untouched - just having enough words to see them through a day will do for now.
A colleague of mine recently recalled when her boy’s reading ability sparked into life. He was five - a fairly typical age to be able to read, so you’d think. She remembers feeling a sense of revelation, even bewilderment, that this little creature who could barely do anything for himself not so long ago was now able to sit alone, with a book, and read.
And she then realised how odd - how wrong - it was to feel like this. To be amazed and in awe of something that we should all take for granted; something that should be a simple rite of passage of a human’s progress through life. We’re born, we crawl, we walk, then talk, then read - isn’t that how it should go for everyone?
I’ve read to my son ever since he was just a few weeks old. For me it is an emotional exercise, as much as an educational one. It’s about us sharing a moment of intimacy, with no interruptions - no phones, TV or Siri to get in the way. But the science behind doing so makes it equally rewarding. Children acquire between 500 and 1,100 words by the age of three. Regularly talking, singing and reading to our little ones during those years can increase their vocabulary by 75%.
My son is lucky. Our shelves at home are stacked with books, and the school he'll go to will be too. But storybooks are shamefully the preserve of the better off. It is a fact that the poorer you are, the further away your closest book lies.
Odds are, my son will be able to read. It’ll give him the opportunity to decide whether he’s a book lover. Whether, like his mum, he’ll be thrilled by the prospect of those opening pages, and eaten with the curiosity of finding out what happens next. Or perhaps he won’t like books - perhaps he’ll be into computers and want to spend all day coding. Or maybe he’ll be interested in the world around him - nature, politics, buildings. Whatever it is he ends up loving, he’ll be able to love it more because he’ll be able to read.
It is never too late to learn how to read and write; but there is no substitute for learning to do that as a child.
Today is the International Day of Families. Why not mark it by reading a book with your little boy, or girl, or niece, or nephew or grandchild and share the #joyofreading as a family. After all, there are still some things that Siri will never replace.
You can connect with Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBucks
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