Saturday, September 5, 2015

Celebrate Literacy!

September 7 has been designated as International Literacy Day. Normally I don’t commemorate these invented occasions, unless Hallmark has a card I can send. However, since we’re all in the business of writing I thought I’d share a few things.

Most high school graduates in the United States currently read at a sixth-grade level. This probably explains why those of us who write at a tenth-grade level don’t sell too many books, unless they’re illustrated. I also learned that many schools no longer teach cursive writing. Why teach a kid to write when they have two perfectly good thumbs to text with?

Spelling and grammar have apparently gone the way of the full-service gas station as well, judging by some of the e-mails I receive. All of us are old enough to remember when “spell check” meant consulting the dictionary or thesaurus. I still do, just to remember what it was like. Research consisted of looking something up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I will admit to using Wikipedia and I visit web sites when I need specific details, but I keep a library of printed material that serves the same purpose.

Speaking of spelling, acronyms appear to have become the new shorthand. I’m not sure if these were born of speed, limited text space or sheer laziness, but I ran across a list of the most popular. They range from the innocuous (LOL, ROFL, LMAO, Thx, Plz) to the terse (wtf, gth, noydb, gfy), with a detour into mindless (btw, fyi, tmi, idk, hmu). Give yourself a point for each one you guess correctly. They’ve even spawned some new words – dunno (don’t know), lemme (let me), noob (newbie), 2nte (tonight) 2moro (tomorrow) and L8r (later).

Sales of video games and other visual entertainment (such as DVDs and movies-on-demand) continue to outpace book sales. Why read something, where you have to concentrate on what’s being described, when you can lie back and watch it with no thought process involved? Just let it wash over you without using your gray matter.

Many states have instituted proficiency minimums before someone can graduate high school or go to college. This is a good thing but many of these tests focus on science, math and technology to give the students a competitive edge. All well and good but in most states, English and fine arts are not on the list, and that’s sad.

I became an avid reader while growing up and I haven’t limited my choices to books. I read a print newspaper every day, and I don’t mind waiting at the Doctor’s office if there are a few good magazines around. I credit my parents with this, especially my father, who was a professional educator. The words “book report” didn’t elicit a groan from me like it did my classmates, as long as the story was interesting. It also opened a whole new universe for me, for which I’m grateful.

Although I enjoy watching movies and TV, there is still nothing as satisfying as reading a well written story and using my imagination to fill in the blanks. I enjoy visualizing the scenes and the action, and casting the characters to my liking. Physical descriptions are great, but allow me the pleasure of picturing my favorite actor or actress in the written roles. It’s better than seeing someone else’s concept.

Several years ago I participated in a nationwide program sponsored by Wal-Mart to promote literacy. The local event was done in conjunction with Project Read and the library system. Participating authors were given the opportunity to appear at Wal-Mart stores, read from one of our books, answer questions and hopefully sell a copy or two. It didn’t really come off as planned, and the following week I figured out why. This is the e-mail I received from someone at Wal-Mart headquarters:

“Thank you for participating in literay day!”

So much for the sixth-grade reading level.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author whose books range from mystery/thrillers to contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.


Fiona McGier said...

Of course they pick a day off school to celebrate literacy, since on Labor Day most kids will be plugged into their various entertainment devices and unwilling to do something as mundane as read. As a sub in high schools, I talk often about the joys to be found on pages, when reading causes you to think the same thoughts as the writer, even one who's been dead for many years. Some issues and themes are universal to the human experience, and knowing how others have dealt with them before, can help you make good choices. I talk about active entertainment, versus passively allowing images to wash over your eyeballs, while your brain takes a snooze. But kids often don't see any adults in their family read, so they figure it's something else that is only forced on them while in school, and they can't wait to get out so they never have to do it again. Sigh.

Against all odds, we raised 4 readers. We read to them every night (husband and I took turns with different book series), and we often read aloud as a family, so they wouldn't fight over who go to read the latest Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl books first. They used to tell me they didn't like to read, but daughter had me get her a kindle for Christmas last year, and they all have multiple books on their shelves...some I've never seen, so I know they're buying and reading them without being forced to. They've always seen their dad and me reading, and in my case, writing books.

Reading, and in fact, liberal arts as an educational segment, have been discredited. I know we need more students adept in STEM, but we also need them to be able to think logically through issues enough to be able to case an educated vote come election time. They need to be able to recognize situations, or learn empathy, and that comes from reading. They need to be able to express themselves coherently, and that comes from writing. I sometimes feel like a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Great post on an important issue. Thanks, Tim.

Tim Smith said...

Wow, Fiona - I didn't mean to start something but thanks for your insightful comments. Being a sub teacher you can see the impact. Sadly, with funding the way it is, fine arts have been the first things to get cut in most schools. That's one of the reasons I got out of being a public school music teacher years ago.

Tim Smith

jean hart stewart said...

Almost too sad to comment on. My grandkids certainly don't know the joys of reading that keep me going.