Literacy is a skill we often take for granted. Reading and writing are some of the first things we’re taught in pre-school, and they are essential for operating in the modern world.
But the reality is that while most adults in the world can read, half of the kids around the world don’t even have books at home and cannot understand a simple story by the end of primary school. This situation is expected to only worsen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the issue is complex and multifaceted, I believe that relatively simple actions can be taken to help – by the government, businesses, and individuals. But let’s start by looking at why it’s crucial to get the reading bug in early childhood.
Why reading books since childhood is so important
Introducing kids to books at a very young age — even before they can read — is an integral part of early childhood development. When parents read to their children, they inspire a lifelong love and respect towards reading. Most likely, these children will, in turn, pass the love of books on to their own kids.
But why is reading so important, really?
Researchers found that books — even kids storybooks — teach children 50% more rare words than primetime television, thus broadening their outlook and understanding of different worldly concepts. Studies also show that frequent reading with a child during early childhood is strongly linked with language, cognitive development, and learning performance.
A 2019 study published in the Global Journal of Health examined the relation between the availability of children’s books and the literacy-numeracy skills of children aged 3 to 5 years. The study covered more than 100 thousand children from 35 countries and found that:
- Only half (51.8%) of children have at least one children’s book at home;
- Less than one-third (29.9%) are on track for literacy-numeracy.
While Latvia wasn’t included in this particular study, we can draw similarities with the situation here. While the reading habits of Latvian adults seem positive with half of the adults reading at least one book per month, the data for school-age children is worrying. An OECD PISA study of 9th-grade Latvian students (15-year olds) found that:
- 38% admit having difficulties understanding complicated text;
- 30% can’t read fluently;
- Only 4,8 % of the students have a full-fledged understanding of the text.
While this data is only slightly below the OECD average, it looks alarming that such a significant part of school children aren’t on track with their literacy — a skill that’s integral to critical thinking and positive future career outcomes.
The pandemic has made things worse
Literacy is expected to only decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged remote learning. The World Bank Group analyzed 157 countries and found that school closures will have a negative impact on the global level of schooling and learning, resulting in a loss of between 0.3 and 0.9 years of education.
McKinsey analysis found that the impact of the pandemic left U.S. students on average four months behind in reading by the end of the school year, compared with matched students in previous years.
As quality education is linked to higher earnings, better health, greater political participation, and reduced incarceration rates, the pandemic could have a long-term impact on an entire generation of students.
Need for action on a governmental level
In this digital age, when screens prevail over books — even more so because of the pandemic — we need to raise awareness about the importance of reading and literacy. The good news is that it doesn’t always have to be complicated — the first step would be to simply make books available to as many children as possible.
World Bank leads by example — it has started the admirable Read@Home initiative to highlight the importance of reading at home. This program delivers reading, learning, and play materials to hard-to-reach homes with children aged 3-12.
In Latvia, there are efforts to improve student literacy in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Education, and the National Library. Educational materials are developed for use in libraries and schools to foster the love for reading and a better understanding of the written text.
Interestingly, Latvian students who read books in paper format had a 43% higher score on the OECD PISA reading test than other students who rarely or never read books. That said, our country also faces serious digital illiteracy challenges, which I’ve covered in one of my previous blog posts. Therefore just fostering the love for fiction and making paper books more accessible won’t be enough to maximize the potential of Latvian youth — the government’s approach needs to be holistic and involve digital solutions like e-books and audiobooks.
What can each of us do to help
Personally, I started reading in my early teens. Now, reading has become an essential and meaningful part of my life, even if I can’t call myself the biggest bibliophile out there. Every month, I read one or two books and listen to audiobooks.
At TWINO, I also do my best to promote reading:
- There are books always available at the office;
- Every new employee gets a book on their first day at work;
- Every year we gift good quality books to the children of TWINO employees.
With this example I’m trying to say that each of us can do something, no matter how small, to get more kids into reading and thus improve their prospects of a better future. If it’s your child or a relative, find the time to read with them regularly. Even giving a storybook to a neighbor’s kid may have a life-changing effect.
Surely, such initiatives would be more potent if there was greater support from the state institutions. We need to act now because when a whole generation of non-readers will have reached adulthood, it’ll be too late.