Flashing screens or turning pages?

Winning The War Between Books And Television

(I wrote this speech—which later became a chapter in Reading Magic—in the early nineties, before the invention of smart phones or tablets, so please include those devices and any new ones when you see the word ‘television’.)

Television will not go away. It’s here to stay and its attractions are many. One way of doing battle with it might be to get rid of it completely or to turn it off most of the time but in most homes that would now be very difficult. Rather than wondering what we can do about television it might be as well to focus on what we can do to make books and reading as attractive as watching t.v. Why don’t kids read? Let’s start at the beginning.

Children learn to speak for many reasons, one of which being that they are completely surrounded by it, they see it in action and they very quickly understand that using language produces excellent results. They learn to talk because they badly need to: ‘Dink, dink!’ they cry when they’re thirsty. ‘Ganpa gone seepies, they whisper as Grandpa drops off to sleep. ‘My ball’ they glower, as another child steps forward menacingly. They observe the results of speaking and discover a million reasons to engage in the activity that is ‘talk’.

In order to make books more attractive than television we have to do with books what we have already done with talk. As adults we have shown that talking reaps rewards. We must do the same with books. We have to demonstrate that reading is as much fun as talking, and almost as necessary. We have to create in children a deep-seated need for books, otherwise television will always win out. How might we do this?

When we look at the sort of home that produces book-lovers the first thing we notice—the most obvious, but strangely the most often forgotten factor—is that such a home has books in it. There exist highly privileged children in our society who cannot read, or will not read. It’s not difficult to find out why: they have television; they have toys, computer games, personal devices, bikes and all the trappings of a well-off childhood; but they don’t have books. These children often have a reading problem at school that their panic-stricken parents disguise under the socially acceptable label of dyslexia. How can books become attractive if there aren’t any books around to flick through?

The second essential factor in the making of eager, competent readers is that the children have books of their own, and their own bookshelves, so that favourite books can be owned and read over and over again. Ownership is important. I know of a child who read a particular favourite book until it was in tatters. His parents replaced it not once, but three times. Being able to own, and therefore able to re-read the book for years made that child into a reader.

The third necessity is a wide variety of reading material throughout the house—thrillers, paperbacks, magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, classics, kids’ novels, non-fiction books and manuals, specialist journals, posters, charts, and picture books. Some short books. Some long. Some hard for little children to read. Some really easy. As adults we don’t read serious novels all the time—our needs vary and we should remember that children’s needs vary also.

The fourth requirement, I believe, is that children should be allowed to read whatever they want to read. At thirteen my own child was crazy about picture books—surely too young for her! And Jean Plaidy novels—surely too long for her! Once when she was bored at my sister’s place she picked up and read and loved The Color Purple by Alice Walker which I thought to be highly unsuitable for a child of twelve. However because I wanted her to be a reader I allowed her to make the choices and she became a reader.

The fifth essential factor is for parents to be seen to enjoy reading, which means reading at times when children can watch their parents being totally absorbed in books. I believe it’s a fine thing to be seen to sniffle over sad books in front of children, and a fine thing to delay washing the dog or getting to a ball game because a parent cannot put a particular book down.

The sixth necessity is that the books read by the children should be beautiful, intrinsically rewarding books such as Where the Wild Things Are, (scary), The Giant Devil Dingo (how the world became), Guess What? (disgusting), Julius, the Baby of the World (hilarious), Hop on Pop (easy), and Koala Lou (touching). These beautiful books create a need by satisfying a need. If we didn’t know chocolate was delicious we’d never crave it—so it is with books. These books all feel smooth, smell nice, look enticing and present their readers with real rewards for the effort of reading them.

The seventh thing to be found in a book-loving home is that the parents usually take parenting seriously. They role-play parenting like mad. They know they ought to read to their children so they do. The kids are caught up in a bookish world. At night they are warm and safe with a big, loving, protective parent beside the bed reading them stories night after night. In the daytime they squeeze on to a comforting lap and in the security of a parent’s loving warmth listen to all manner of horrors and joys coming out of books. The relationship between parent and child during the stories is one of warmth and love that makes the child associate books with warmth and love and pleasure and security. How attractive books become!

And, lastly, for children to be able to learn to love books they need time to read; a quiet place to read in; warmth in winter; a comfortable spot to curl up in; and enough light to read by.

One of my small acquaintances was able to read but wasn’t a keen reader and was dropping behind her classmates at school. I discovered that she wasn’t allowed to read in bed. Amazing. She had a reading lamp in case she woke up in the night and was frightened. She had books on her shelves—I had seen to that. But she had no time to read; no quiet place to read, because the television was always on; no warm place except bed because the warmest room had the television in it, and no comfortable sofa to curl up in because that was in the warm, well-lit, comfortable, noisy room which had the television in it! The mother’s anxiety about her daughter’s reading level was very real. She thought she had a big problem on her hands but when the child had been given the permission, the time, the books, the light, and the comfort of reading in bed every night the problem was solved.

In the kinds of homes that produce avid readers people still watch television  a lot, but with discrimination. The child who loves books will gain enormously from watching television—much of the unknown world will be revealed, giving the child valuable information and insights to assist her later in her understanding of more demanding literature.

Let’s now look at the attractions of television and compare them with a child’s experiences in a non-ideal school, for certainly such a school will drive schoolchildren away from books very quickly, straight into the channels of television:

Firstly, television is watched by babies, partly because parents park them in front of it and partly because even babies perceive a need for television to combat boredom. Is there such a thing as a television readiness program? Ofcourse not. Children watch television because it’s intrinsically rewarding, it’s fun, it’s worth doing.

However, in a non-ideal school even children who can already read and who enjoy reading are put through a ridiculous reading-readiness program, sorting out this shape from that, colouring in from top to bottom of a page, following a pattern from left to right and so on. None of this creates a hunger for books. It creates hideous boredom—so unlike the wonderful interest provided by television.

Children choose what they want to watch on television within the bounds of parental control. Research has shown that children actually prefer programs designed for adults, particularly comedy programs, and cops and robbers.

In a non-ideal school there is no self-selection of books. Basal readers are provided and everyone begins with Reader No.1 and grindingly slowly, ignoring any interests the children might have, each child progresses step by step to Reader No. 157.

Television watching is not competitive. There is no such thing as a good television-watcher, nor a bad one. No one has any idea about my capabilities as a television watcher—no one is better than I am, nor worse.

But in a non-ideal school every child knows who the best readers are, and the worst. The reading scheme is so designed that the entire class knows that Katie is still on Reader Number 10 in third grade; and Katie’s shame pervades the classroom and alters her life by making her a public failure. No wonder she prefers television.

Television is fast, colourful, easy, funny, scary, informative, and slick. In a non-ideal school with only basal readers the books look awful, the illustrations are banal, the plots and language are peculiarly uninspired; the content never makes kids cry or laugh or gasp or feel sick; the covers of the books aren’t inviting; the size is predictable; the smell is off-putting. Often children can’t be bothered to struggle with a reader because the reward in the end is not worth the effort—slow tedium, that’s what basal readers provide. What a negative contrast to television!

Television can be watched in a warm and comfortable environment—on the floor, curled up in a chair, lolling on a settee, standing in front of the fire, with others in the family watching the same program, enjoying the feeling of belonging and sharing, as well as the content on the screen.

In a non-ideal school reading takes place in a physically and emotionally cold environment, and in some discomfort. There is no sense of shared enjoyment and fun with books if a stern (but well-meaning) teacher is listening to a child trying to read a boring book and waiting, just waiting to pounce as soon as an error reaches her ears. In this situation the child associates books with fear, shame and boredom. When did television ever have that effect?

No one tells children that they must watch so much television per night because it is A Good Thing To Do. People watch it because it gives them pleasure. They want to watch it to relax.

Reading books, in a non-ideal school, is often set for homework—a certain number of pages must be read and marked off on a bookmark by the following day. The child perceives no need to read. Reading provides no pleasure and is anything but relaxing when the anxious parent barks out the correct word every time the child hesitates or guesses wrongly.

Television and books have one thing in common—it’s what the child gets out of them that matters. Reading is not inherently good. Television is not inherently bad. What counts is the pleasure, the experiences, the relaxation, the growth in understanding, the satisfaction of need in each medium. I watch a lot of televison when I’m tired. But on holidays I never watch television—I read instead. Television doesn’t answer my deepest needs on vacation. Yet long novels are too daunting to begin after an exhausting day of brain-work. Television and books have concurrent, different roles to play in our lives, but children who suffer at non-ideal schools will only ever have television because books have been made so deeply unattractive to them.

Book-lovers who are fanatically anti-television forget that it’s a marvellous medium for turning children on to books. While the BBC serial of The Secret Garden was showing on television the book was never on the shelves of libraries across the nation. I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace as an adult only after watching three episodes on television: seeing the people helped me to sort out the complicated Russian names and made the book accessible.

Making books more magnetic than television is not quite as easy as pressing a knob to ‘off’. But if we could provide bookshelves filled with a wide variety of reading material, a loving, caring parent or teacher or two, and a school which looks and sounds like a loving, caring, book-filled home, there would be more children who would love to read in spite of the flashing attractions of the television set beckoning from a different corner of a different room.