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Have we closed the book on books?

Have we closed the book on books?

In times of fake news, we need experienced readers to evaluate texts critically. Can we make young people read again?

13 minutes
17 December 2020

‘No more excuses: time for the turf’ was a newspaper headline during lockdown about the great classics of world literature. The question is whether our reading muscles are still strong enough for the heavier work. And what about young people, who do less and less reading aerobics?

The following may be a plea for reading, but not all reading material is a cause for joy. Take the 2016 PIRLS report, for example, an international comparative research report on the reading ability of pupils in the fourth year of primary school. In ten years, the number of Flemish children who read on an (almost) daily basis shrank from 48% to 36%. A cause for even greater concern is that the number of children who read never or almost never nearly doubled, from 9% to 17%. Another international survey, called PISA, showed that the group of non-readers among 15-year-olds is even bigger.

The scores for reading comprehension are similar, according to the PIRLS reports. Flemish pupils score very poorly, significantly lower than the Western European average and even just below the international average. “Of particular concern is the fact that we keep performing worse,” says Professor Elke Peters, head of the Research Group Language and Education. “Even if we do not compare the Flemish results with other countries, we can only conclude that things are going downhill.”

Ideal power diet

The results set off the alarm bells, as is evident from headlines like ‘Save Reading. Now!’. Not a moment too soon, according to Professor of English Literature Elke D’hoker, who studies the place of literature in education: “For far too long the attitude has been one of indifference: some children don’t like reading, other children don’t like playing football, so what? But now that we see the dramatic decline in reading skills and the impact on future academic success, we have suddenly woken up: this is not just a hobby like any other.

Many of the beneficial effects of reading – socialization, empathy, creativity, self-discovery, a broader worldview – are difficult to measure. That is problematic in a society that wants to quantify everything. Good literature is multi-layered, brings together various perspectives, and does not provide easy answers. Is this an ideal power diet in the age of fake news? Elke Peters nods in assent: “That is definitely the case: the ability to critically read and process information in a text requires good reading skills and the ability to identify flaws in the line of reasoning.”

In other words, we need trained readers more than ever, but, at the same time, there has never been more competition in children’s free time. Watching a YouTube video or playing a game requires far less effort than reading a book. “On the other hand, the competition from other media is ubiquitous, but you don’t see the same poor scores for reading enjoyment and reading skills in every country,” Elke D’hoker says. “If you make your reading culture strong enough, it is perfectly able to match the competition.” According to Elke Peters, we can learn lessons from the approach in Ireland. “They have had a National Literacy Strategy for years, and they are clearly reaping the benefits.”

We have lost much of our literature-related baggage: broad literacy, the discovery of new things outside our own context, as well as simply devoting an extended period of time to reading and studying a text.

Lost luggage

The key to such a national reading policy lies in education. But there are considerable differences of opinion about the ideal approach. “Up until the mid-20th century, you learnt your own language and foreign languages by reading literary texts, as is still more or less the case for Latin and Greek,” Elke D’hoker says. “As it was felt that this taught pupils to read Goethe, but not to buy tickets at a German train station, the approach was gradually abandoned in favour of a focus on language skills, communication, spoken language, and everyday contexts.”

Change was needed, but it has gone too far, D’hoker argues: “Look at the textbooks for language education: they use newspaper articles, interviews or at most a short excerpt from a literary text. The practice of deep and engaged reading is gone. As a result, we have lost much of our literature-related baggage: broad literacy, the discovery of new things outside our own context, as well as simply devoting an extended period of time to reading and studying a text.”

You have to spend sufficient time reading to become a good reader, Elke Peters agrees. “It is only when you are good at it that you will start enjoying it. If you often get stuck and don’t understand many of the words, of course you will not enjoy reading and will be less likely to pick up a book. If you don’t prioritize reading in primary education, you will end up in a vicious circle.”

Not just one class

And this appears to be a key problem. The Centre for Educational Effectiveness and Evaluation at KU Leuven analysed the Flemish results in the PIRLS report and concluded that the number of hours devoted to reading instruction in the fourth year of primary school almost halved between 2006 and 2016. However, according to the researchers, the teachers are even more important than the time allocated to reading: experienced and inspiring teachers make all the difference. The PIRLS report indicates that 35% of Flemish teachers did not take part in additional training courses for reading comprehension instruction over the past few years. The researchers recommend putting more emphasis on the professionalization of teaching methodology and on continuing professional development.

Another interesting conclusion from their analysis: in 2016, voluntary reading was a strong indicator of reading comprehension skills, while this correlation was lacking in 2006. In other words, it has become a major challenge to get children who rarely read outside school to acquire sufficient reading skills. Boosting reading pleasure has become more important than ever. “Just today, I asked my daughter whether they often get read to at school,” Elke Peters says. “She answered: occasionally. In fact, something should be read aloud every day in primary school. Teachers might also want to give children the opportunity to engage in free reading on a structural basis.”

This is one of the motivational methods recommended by a practical guide for reading education that was published last year. The guide was commissioned by the Flemish Education Council and written by specialists under the supervision of Kris Van den Branden (KU Leuven) and Hilde Van Keer (UGhent). Their advice of course goes further than only reading motivation. According to the researchers, it is important that pupils are taught strategies to process and understand texts and that teachers coach them intensively. They also emphasize that a good reading policy at school cannot be limited to one reading comprehension class: reading skills and reading ability should be part of every class.

Talking about books this is crucial to acquire insight into the multilayeredness of literary texts. It also stimulates reading motivation and reading pleasure.

The right book for every reader

If primary school children discover how much fun it is to be engrossed in a book, you can challenge them with more difficult books in secondary school. You oughtn’t to be afraid to impose reading materials, Elke D’hoker says. “The justifiable critique of the canon – ‘always the same dozen white men’ – has led to a fear of compulsory reading materials. A book that you have been asked or assigned to read may very well still lead to a positive reading experience if it is a book that appeals to you. There is such a wide variety of genres and themes that it is simply a question of finding the right book for every reader.”

She also refers to the final attainment levels for secondary education, in which literature has largely been reduced to an ancillary role, as just one of many kinds of texts. “The only place in which books take centre stage is in the so-called reading portfolio, for which pupils have to read, say, four books on an individual basis: everyone chooses their own books from the reading list – preferably short books or ones that have been adapted in film – and then writes a reflection on it. Yet the social dimension of talking about books is lacking in this approach even though this is crucial to acquire insight into the multilayeredness of literary texts. Talking about books also stimulates reading motivation and reading pleasure. It is a hopeful sign that one of the recently introduced final attainment levels for the first two years is ‘experiencing literature (in foreign languages/one’s mother tongue)’.”

This is very different for foreign languages compared to Dutch. Of course you cannot expect pupils to read books and literature in their first English or French lessons because they lack the necessary language skills. “We know, for example, that depending on the level of text comprehension, learners should be familiar with 95 to 95% of the running words in a text. This means that learners should know the 4,000 to 8,000 most frequent word families in order to read a literary text in English,” says Elke Peters, who conducts research into language learning herself. “We tested young learners’ vocabulary size before they start secondary education. And it turns out that twelve-year-olds have an English vocabulary of approximately 3000 words. That is a solid base.”

Games are an important source of these first words. And by no means a bad one: if you analyze the vocabulary used in games, you will see that they consist of the most frequent words in English. However, language learners should also be familiarized with the more formal registers of a language. “This is the area where formal English language instruction in school can make the difference and it stands to reason that books and literature can and should play a central role,” Elke Peters continues. But do teachers capitalize on that possibility? Peters did a small-scale exploratory study and asked her first year students how often they had to read a book in their English classes during the last year of secondary school. Approximately eighty percent answered ‘one or twice per semester’, one in ten answered ‘never’.

As far as other foreign languages are concerned, the question is whether learners’ proficiency levels are good enough to even start reading literary texts. “We can see that after eight years of French instruction – two years in primary school and six years in secondary education – students’ proficiency in French is very often not sufficient to read a newspaper article or book fluently. The large amounts of out-of-school exposure to English can never be compensated for French in the classroom, but it is clear that the gap should be narrowed. It would be naive to think that this can be done with only two or three hours per week. To make real progress, you need extensive exposure to the language through formal instruction time, but you should also encourage pupils to engage with the foreign language outside of school.”


These are also some of the concerns of the Flemish Language Platform, an initiative of the academic language programmes that now represents a broad group of language teachers. In an action plan that they presented in March, they propose a number of measures to strengthen Flemish language education at all levels. For example, they recommend providing additional support to teachers, better monitoring of learners’ progress, and launching campaigns to raise awareness of the societal importance of languages.

“The dwindling popularity of language programmes at universities is partly due to the fact that there are fewer readers,” Elke D’hoker says. “Traditionally, our intake came from those young people who enjoyed reading. I have also noticed that new generations of students who start in our bachelor’s programmes have quite simply read less widely. They still know who Proust is, but they are unlikely to have read any of his texts.”

She attempts to do her part in encouraging a reversal, for example by organizing an annual Day of Literature Teaching. Teams of academics and teachers offer workshops on the teaching of literature in which new literary research and concrete didactic tools come together. The need is great, as is evident from the overwhelming interest. “The teachers tell us that continuing education primarily focuses on pedagogical aspects, how to deal with learning disabilities in class, for example, while they are also looking for additional training in terms of content.”

Along with a number of European partners, Elke D’hoker is currently preparing a project focused on short forms in language education: “Short stories, for example, could be used more in secondary education in Flanders. They can be printed in full in textbooks, which allows the whole class to be engaged in the reading and analysis of complete literary texts.”

She also has other ideas to foster interest in reading at secondary school. “Like book teachers at primary school, reading coaches could be appointed in secondary schools. Language teachers with limited literary baggage could ask the reading coach for advice. Together, they could ensure that young people are gradually offered more challenging books that match their specific level. That is the recipe to maintain standards of reading motivation and reading enjoyment.”

“Promoting reading ought to be something the whole school supports. Young people would also find it interesting to know which books the biology teacher likes reading, or which books are about the topics of their history lessons. There are so many umbrella projects in schools – just think of traffic education, for example, or alcohol and drug prevention. Promoting reading should also be one of them.”

IMG 2507 web Michiel Devijver 2
© Michiel Devijver

From parents to ‘wrappers’

Parents can also play a crucial role, of course. A striking finding in the PIRLS report is that a significant proportion of Flemish parents barely engage in reading or pre-reading activities with their children. Elke D’hoker and Elke Peters both have children. What is their strategy? “At home it is also a question of matching the book to the reader,” Elke D’hoker says. “My third child reads constantly, but the eldest is a difficult reader. I noticed that he particularly enjoys series of children’s books; if you know what the book will be about and that you will enjoy it, the threshold to starting a new book is lower.”

Elke Peters, mother of two children, has had similar experiences: “Last week, we ordered the fourth book in the Treehouse series by Andy Griffiths, and our daughter read it immediately. She was more enthusiastic about this one than the earlier books. Of course, as you get better at reading, you will also enjoy reading more. In other words, reading as much as possible is the key.”

Parents can also find inspiration in initiatives like the Voorleesweek (Reading Aloud Week) and the Jeugdboekenmaand (Youth Book Month) organized by Iedereen Leest (Everyone Reads). Even social media can promote reading, Elke Peters says. “Fan fiction is a good example, when readers rewrite the end of a story or write their own sequels. That can be a fun way to encourage children to read and write. Vloggers can also play a role, I am thinking for example of the ‘wrappers’ on Ketnet, the children’s television channel in Flanders. Children look up to them. If they promote reading as being cool, it will really catch on.”

“Role models can play a big role in reading promotion for adolescents,” Elke D’hoker says. “At that age, whatever you say as a parent often only has the opposite effect (laughs).”

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September 2020