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Reading is a habit that we can't afford to lose

IF you are thinking of giving children books as a Christmas present this year, brace yourself for faces crumpled with disappointment when they rip the paper off and discover that those hard edges do not belong to a CD or video game.

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If the latest Progress In International Reading survey is right, a book is about as welcome to a Scottish child as a bulging folder marked "extra homework". Our children, it found, find reading boring, do less of it at home, and enjoy it less than they did five years ago. Our literacy level is plummeting. Among 45 countries, Scotland has now slipped from 14th to 26th position.

The survey also came up with one other terrifying statistic: 37% of our 10-year-olds spend more than three hours a day playing computer games, much longer than their peers elsewhere. Bear in mind that according to another study reported in the Journal Of Obesity, the average 5 to 15-year-old also watches over two-and-a-half hours television each night. You can see why they barely have a minute left to pick up a book.

The methodology of such surveys is always up for dispute, but however imperfect, these snapshots do capture an unwelcome truth. We are breeding a nation of semi-literate computer nerds and anoraks who would only recognise Robert Louis Stevenson if he had an entry on Facebook, a nation of couch potatoes who would only be persuaded to take an interest in Treasure Island if it was featured on A Place In The Sun.

This has happened because we swallowed the sales pitch of the technocrats who told us first that TV, and then computers, were progressive, modern educational tools that would engage children who might otherwise be turned off by old school methods. Middle-class parents - always a lucrative market to target - were encouraged to believe that they would be depriving their children if they allowed them to be "internet illiterate". What a joke. What we actually needed was red flashing warnings on TVs and computers that read: "Caution: excessive, extended use of this product may stunt your intellectual and cultural development."

As a child, I considered my father, a teacher, as wildly unreasonable and embarrassingly eccentric for refusing to allow a TV in the house. His contention, quite simply, was that it would stop us reading books. He was right. Now that affluent households are stiff with plasma screens, consoles and monitors, we have whole generations who barely read.

Obviously, computer competency is a key skill for many of today's adults, but when should it be introduced? The hugely sensible approach taken by Rudolf Steiner schools is that computers only become useful in the teen years once children have mastered fundamental, time-honoured ways of discovering information and learning, such as practical experiments and books. This week there was news coverage of a scheme to flood Nigerian schools with £100 computers in the name of progress and development. The education minister remained, quite correctly, unimpressed. Why computers, he asked, when many of his schools still didn't have books, desks or toilets.

Mention literacy, of course, and you have the Tories jumping up, attacking the government's reading strategy. They bang on about re-introducing synthetic phonics, and some progress has indeed been made using this traditional "sounding out" method in West Dunbartonshire and Clackmannanshire. But phonics is not the whole answer because, in English, there are so many exceptions to the rules. And David Cameron's demand that every child should be able to read by the age of six is just an opportunistic stick with which to beat the government, not to mention misguided. In Scandinavia, children are not taught to read until they are at least six years old. By then they are ready to learn and do so faster, without all the anxiety that surrounds reading in the UK.

Almost as worrying as the 20% of 11-year-olds who are illiterate, is the number of literate teenagers who actively choose to read as little as possible. Many of them have come to hate English as a subject because they associate it with term after tedious term spent ponderously picking apart one poem, one book, one play. The excitement that used to come from being encouraged to read widely and prolifically, and the flexibility to select a range of books that interests you, is being edged out of the English curriculum.

And so the reading deficit grows. Book shops close and library borrowings keep dropping. Any realistic editor nowadays recognises that it is an uphill struggle to get people to read the longer, denser articles that used to run routinely. This is why so much of what we now read is broken up with fact boxes, 10 bests, top tips and celebrity pics.

We are slowly losing that civilising regular reading habit, and our habituation to quick-fix, truncated information, gained from TV and computers, is in danger of leaving us with the attention span of a flea. In fact, if you have persevered to the end of this article, then give yourself a pat on the back. On present trends, you are one of a dying breed.

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