06/02/2012 11:48 GMT

Teacher Hits Back At Claire Tomalin's 'Children Can't Read Dickens' Claims

A teacher has rejected claims by a leading Charles Dickens biographer that modern schoolchildren do not possess the attention span needed to read the revered author's books.

Claire Tomalin, author of Charles Dickens: A Life, said that his novels and their depiction of an unfair society were "amazingly relevant" to the current day.

But in an interview with the Press Association to mark the 200th anniversary of the author's birth, she also criticised the state of modern teaching for ill-equipping children with the attention span required to read his classic, but lengthy, books.

Tomalin said: "You only have to look around our society and everything he wrote about in the 1840s is still relevant - the great gulf between the rich and poor, corrupt financiers, corrupt members of Parliament, how the country is run by old Etonians, you name it, he said it.

"The world did become a much better place in post-war England, Attlee's government brought in the National Health Service, there was free university education for able children of all classes.

"But now our health system is deteriorating, we do not have free university education and we have never been so divided. What Dickens wrote about is still amazingly relevant.

"The only caveat I would make is that today's children have very short attention spans because they are being reared on dreadful television programmes which are flickering away in the corner.

"Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that's a pity."

But Maxine Sharkey, subject leader for English at Springfield School Portsmouth, Hampshire, the city where Dickens was born, hit back saying the study of Dickens and his works is still a thriving part of our English curriculum.

"Many students were enormously enthused to further their study of Dickens after watching the television adaptations of both Great Expectations and Edwin Drood which were screened over the Christmas period.

"One student in a year nine class has just delivered an oral book review to her class and specifically mentioned that she read Great Expectations after seeing the television adaptation.

"Furthermore, the English department is about to judge a Dickens writing competition (entries open to all year groups including our local junior schools).

"Dickens is very much alive, well and speaking to the current 'younger generation'."

Portsmouth City Council, in association with Vintage Classics, is launching Portsmouth Reads Dickens, a campaign aimed at engaging people with the works of Dickens.

This has included every secondary school in the city receiving a full set of Charles Dickens works and 4,000 copies of Oliver Twist being handed out to residents.

JD Sharpe, author of Oliver Twisted - a "reimagining" of the Dickens' classic involving zombies, said that the key to enabling children to enjoy Dickens is to get them to enjoy reading.

She said that children need to be engaged in new ways with reading using new methods and technologies such as iPads to keep them interested.

The author, who is also a children's commissioning editor, said: "Children do not lack the ability to read Dickens, but they may well lack the desire.

"Many think Dickens is stuffy, elitist and more importantly, not for them.

"This is such a shame because none of these things are true. Dickens is funny and sharp and writes about the everyday man, woman and child with immense skill and in a way that is still extremely relevant to us today.

"If we want people to be reading Dickens in another 200 years there are things that we need to be doing now to ensure that legacy.

"First and foremost it is about building up a young person's reading stamina. That means publishing and buying books that will get children hooked on reading - it's that simple. If they read when they are young, they are more likely to read when they are older.

"That also means ensuring access of books for all children and does not mean closing libraries down. We need to make sure that books aren't just in the classroom but at home as well.

"We need to introduce Dickens to young readers in unexpected ways: mash ups, retellings, even apps.

"We need to grab their attention and show that his stories are not stuffy. If they are introduced to Dickens's work in this way, they may well seek out the original and that is the battle won.

"We need to give young people a break. It's not that they have short attention spans but rather they are having to spend their time doing multiple things at once, sifting huge amounts of information in order to communicate and survive in a digital world.

"What is imperative is that reading remains one of those things that has a stake in their increasingly complex world."