Opinion: Are digital devices killing the love of reading? 

Without literacy skills honed through extensive reading, people stuggle to reach their full potential says Professor Tom Nicholson (photo credit/UNSPLASH: Johnny McClung)

by Professor Tom Nicholson

A recent Ministry of Education report found that too much use of digital devices in school is associated with a dislike of reading. It is no surprise really – everyone knows the seductive power of the Internet, how easy it is to be enthralled and to spend hours every day looking at a screen and not actually achieve anything. 

It is easy to see how this relatively recent phenomenon has sparked a drift away from reading books. The Internet is a competitor to books. It is a relentless deluge of updates, notifications and algorithmically-tailored content to keep you hooked – and it seems to say it has so much more to offer than a boring old book. This is not to criticise digital devices because they have been a lifesaver in many ways – yet they are also addictive and time-wasting.

But the more worrying thing about the fall of interest in reading is that students are missing one of the most powerful ways of learning that we have. The way we hone our literacy skills and build knowledge is through extensive reading. The ability to read, write, and spell is necessary but not sufficient for success in life. But without literacy, other than in a few remarkable cases, it is impossible to reach your full potential. 

New Zealand has had three decades of slowly declining relativities in literacy compared with other countries. It is not coincidental that we have had three decades of whole language, a method of teaching reading that eschews teaching the letter-sound rules of English – that is, phonics. We have paid a price for that. Fortunately, with the rise of the science of reading, the long reign of whole language is over. Phonics is coming back. 

Will phonics solve our literacy woes? 

It will help, but I am sceptical that it will be enough, for several reasons. First, the reading wars are not really over – there is still much fighting between advocates of phonics and whole language because their beliefs are fundamentally different.  

Second, while the Ministry of Education is presently making changes and recognises the need for phonics, many teachers will not believe that this is the way to go – who will convince them? Is this latest report not enough to prompt a deeper reflection on the need for a change?

Third, even if we do have more phonics, there is no evidence it will solve the reading gap. It is helpful, but it is not the magic bullet. What we need is a new way of teaching reading that is different to these two approaches (phonics and whole language) but keeps their best features. Can we give children a literacy blueprint soo that they will learn, no matter what happens in school? I think so, if we can provide the following conditions:

  • Teach youngsters about phonemic awareness in kindergarten. By doing this, they will understand that the words we say are not just meaningful but made up of phonemes, to realise that words have two sides to them, so they know that the three sounds in dog are not just woof-woof-woof but d-o-g;
  • Teach them the alphabet names and sounds;
  • Encourage them to write by using the sounds of the alphabet letters;
  • If we could do all this learning in kindergarten, then they would hit the ground running in Year 1;
  • and if they were taught by a Year 1 teacher who understood the science of reading and knew how to teach good phonics as well as a love of books. 

There is no guarantee these things will improve on this country’s worrying decline in literacy. But if we embraced these approaches, our young people would have a fantastic chance of succeeding as readers, writers and spellers – with all the enriching life opportunities these skills bring.

Tom Nicholson is an Emeritus Professor of Literacy Education at Massey University and a member of the US Reading Hall of Fame. His books include ‘At the cutting edge – the importance of phonemic awareness in learning to read and write’ (NZCER Press), ‘Phonics handbook’ (Wiley), and ‘The New Zealand Dyslexia Handbook.’ (NZCER Press).

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