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Poor children have poor reading skills? Not necessarily…

Posted Feb 16 2010 12:00am

The children of poor parents are a year behind in vocabulary tests by the time they start school, says a report. Read about it in the Times, along with comments from intolerant middle England fascists  – it’s all the fault of people on benefit, you know…

Being poor isn’t the problem. Being dumb and/or unwilling to learn  (parents AND kids), is a massive problem, and one for which teachers often carry the (unjustified), can. You cannot force learning upon a child who has no interest in it.

I know I’ve said this before, but if I can’t use myself as an example, who can I use? I was born into relative* poverty, in one of the north-west’s – possibly Britain’s – worst slums, Ardwick, Manchester, 1944. A more deprived area, in the middle of the 20th century, it would have been hard to find. Take a look at this post, where the pictures date from the early fifties. That’s where I spent my first ten years.

*Relative because my father always worked, and my mother often – many families had no wage earner (not least because some fathers/husbands had failed to return from WW2). I was a Latchkey Kid from an early age and, despite the doomsayers, never fell victim to, well, anything really, though, according to my ex, I’m excessively independent. Then again, she was a tad prejudiced…

Nevertheless, despite such inauspicious beginnings, I could read well by the time I started pre-school at 4 (called the Care Club, for the children of parents who both worked which, then, was everybody, where we got a basic education, were fed and watered and kept out of mischief – it also ensured, in such a poor area, that kids got at least one good meal a day*). I had my first library card at 5 (possibly 6 – it was a long time ago – I certainly read Peter Pan without difficulty at 6), my adult library card at 10 or 11. I recently calculated – for a blog post I was writing – that I’d read an average of three books a week throughout my life.

Also a factor, was the fact that I and the little girl next door, when we were 5 or 6, or so, would sit on the front step and read together (contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t always rain in Manchester). When one or the other of us stumbled over a word, the other was likely to know it, or we could ask whichever of our parent was available if we both came up blank. Thus we enhanced each other’s knowledge, and our reading skills developed rapidly as a result.

Can you see that happening these days? Really?

The poor quality of the reading material available to children, these days, has to take some blame for the decline of literacy. See this post for the reasons.

In my teens I was doing old GCE English papers to pass the time, being too ill for sports or PE, having had the good fortune to stumble upon quite possibly the best English teacher of my generation.

I’ve worked as an adult literacy tutor – successfully, too – and written a regular, and popular, magazine column, and I’ve been writing online, on my own account, for the past six years, its current incarnation being this blog.

Being poor is not, of itself, a bar to literacy, or to intellectual development. And while I realise that there is more to learning than literacy, it is arguably the most important part of the modern educational process, because being unable to read is an almost insurmountable barrier to learning. The lack of a drive to learn and, in parents, the lack of any interest in fostering that drive, probably is.

The report, by the Sutton Trust, says, among much else, “Parenting style, for example rules about bedtimes and factors like parental reading and trips to museums and galleries, contribute up to half of the explained cognitive gap between the lowest and middle-income families.”

However, that’s not the whole story, as it’s been proven – and demonstrated many times over the years (and centuries) – that people are quite capable of rising above their financially and intellectually impoverished antecedents. And really, how much benefit do five-year-olds derive from gallery and museum trips? Doubtless it will be claimed that it stimulates interest, and a spirit of enquiry, but I suspect that there will be a high degree of bafflement, too, because while there is much to spark the interest of a small child in a museum (as well as much to bemuse him or her), an art gallery is likely to be met with an outbreak of boredom and “Can we go yet?”.

Anti-intellectualism, too, is rife in this country, and that is a positive bar to learning, and is an attitude passed from parents to children. When I first published my Observer post, (below), a commenter called me an intellectual – bizarrely, it was intended as an insult. Says it all really. These days kicking a ball around is seen as a more desirable skill than the ability to read and write (and, quite possibly, think).

These are far more, and far bigger problems than poverty, when it comes to impediments to learning. And I think that the educational attainments of parents need to be taken into account rather more than they appear to be, too. Parents with poor reading skills aren’t in a position to provide the bedtime stories on which the Sutton Trust places so much emphasis. Though I have to say that no-one ever read to me at bedtime, and I’m none the worse for that.

And for the moronic tendency, let me reiterate – it is a problem which has absolutely nothing to do with the benefit system. Clear?

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