The writing is on the wall for child literacy

Child literacy is not a priority on the political or public agenda. This must change, writes Eleanor McClorey

IT’S time to spell it out — Ireland has a child literacy emergency.

One afternoon last month four children from Ballymun were collected from primary school by their families and bundled into taxis heading for Kildare Street. Once there, they set about putting up posters with a difference outside the Dáil. One poster read: It’s time to spell it out. Ireland has a national literacy emergency. Another: Mark my words. Literacy is the key to my future.

The children and their families were part of “youngballymun” — a new agency for change in services to children and families at risk of poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation.

The fun over, the children trooped into Buswells Hotel and sat patiently through the launch of youngballymun’s 5 Literacy Lessons for the next Government. However, they didn’t get to meet any politicians because none of the political parties attended the launch.

Unfortunately, this was not at all surprising since child literacy is not, and never has been, high on the political or public agenda. Collectively, we have been bystanders to Ireland’s literacy emergency. The PISA study in December 2010 found that one in every six children in Ireland has poor literacy skills. Other studies have found the rate to be as high as one in three for children in disadvantaged communities. In the last 10 years, Ireland has fallen dramatically from 5th to 17th place internationally.

So, why does literacy continue to be kicked to touch? There are a number of reasons.

- One, the issue affects children, and as we have seen with the Children’s Rights referendum, it takes a very long time to answer the interests of our youngest citizens.

- Two, the issue affects poor children. Poverty, for a considerable time, has been off the political agenda. The reality, however, is that almost a quarter of a million Irish children are living in poverty. These are the young people at highest risk of failure by our education system.

Literacy is one of the most basic rights in our modern communications-heavy world. It is, in fact, a multiplier right — one that opens the door to others from the right to an adequate living to freedom of expression.

Youngballymun is asking political parties to take this right to read seriously and to turn Ireland’s time of literacy crisis into an opportunity for our young generation.

Central to this opportunity are our teachers. They are our literacy champions. For their work to be fruitful, however, they must be properly trained, supported and resourced in how to teach literacy.

Then, literacy needs more time in the classroom. Based on tried and tested international research, youngballymun recommends an increase in the amount of teaching time spent on literacy to between 120 and 180 minutes. Primary level children currently receive an average of 55 minutes a day on direct reading and language instruction.

We have to stop the blame game. Too often, if we are not blaming teachers and schools for child literacy failures, we are blaming parents.

Instead we need to actively support and empower parents who themselves may not have enjoyed many benefits from their own education.

Finally, we have to start joining the dots. Child development, family support, out-of-school projects, youth, community, sport and leisure, the youth justice system — services that have not traditionally thought of themselves as having a role in child literacy have to be activated to make sure every child learns to read, regardless of their family income, and regardless of where they live.

As far as youngballymun can ascertain, the Labour Party has made an issue about child literacy in the context of this election with their Right to Read, literacy policy launched in January 2011.

However, children need literacy to be an issue for every party. If political parties are serious about creating a fairer Ireland, and if they are serious about national recovery, they must put reading power first.

To look the other way again is a price too high to pay.

- Eleanor McClorey is chief executive of youngballymun.

- The 5 literacy lessons are contained in youngballymun’s submission to the Department of Education & Skills Draft Plan on Literacy and Numeracy.

More in this section