The government is launching a new campaign this week to encourage better reading among the young: "Read On. Get On". Based on a report that links the inability to "read well" with potential joblessness later in life, it's the latest of many articles and reports bemoaning a decline in traditional reading skills among young people.
But we never hear the alternate view. Commerce and technology are becoming more visual and gestural. So rather than teaching children to read long pages of text, might we be better off teaching them the best way to frame videos, play videogames, analyse SMS or use Emoji?
Before you all choke on your toast, let me explain. I love books and understand why literacy fears might worry governments and parents alike. But not only do I think such fears are unfounded, I actually believe they are dangerous: for our children's - and our country's - future.
No matter how much we value the power of the written word, and no matter how nostalgic we are for those glorious afternoons spent in solitary reading, it all boils down to this. The ability to read and write well in the future will be important only if the written word itself remains important. If it becomes less significant and other media start to take its place, our ability to use those new media will be what's important, not our ability to read.
HARD TO IMAGINE
Those who've grown up with one way of doing things typically find it hard to envisage any other. As a Futurist, I've spent ten years imagining different futures for my clients: yet it's something I still struggle with. When we experience something again and again, it becomes hardwired into our brains. It feels "natural', and anything different feels "unnatural'.
So for instance, to those of us who grew up surrounded by and loving books, it's difficult to imagine a world in which they aren't the dominant method of acquiring and transferring information. But to a teenager today? Not so much.
OLD SCHOOL, NEW SCHOOL
Growing up, almost all my formal education came from books. The better I could read and the wider my vocabulary, the more I learnt.
But I also learned informally, from new, visual media: television, films, comics and adverts. Teachers and parents often looked down on them. Yet what I learned there was often just as important as what I learned in school. Much of what I use socially and in my career now - from social skills and team-building to a host of scientific and historical facts - came from visual media like TV.
Today's young people (the 'SAFFYs' I have written about in previous articles) used even more visual aids in their learning.
The introduction of computers into education has had an enormous impact on learning methods. Learning from books is a linear, front-to-back process: you deduce more the further you proceed. But a computer offers information in irregular bursts and requires a very different mental model. You also don't need to be verbally skilled to use one. All you need is the most basic knowledge of words. And with the growth of touchscreens, soon not even that. Which - though bad for tradition - is good for inclusivity in our more globalised world.
Globalisation itself is another driver of non-verbal skills. Tomorrow's executive or entrepreneur will need to communicate as effectively with someone from China as with someone from the UK; with someone visual or kinesthetic as with someone auditory. They'll need to create campaigns and use media that work globally, not just in one market. And images can cross borders much more effectively than words.
Meanwhile, those early visual learning hubs I had, like TV and film, have been joined by hundreds more. The Internet, online video and puzzle-solving videogames; smartphones; search tools like Google and visualisation tools like Vine and Vyclone; websites like YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest; short-text news services like Facebook and Twitter. Although frequently dismissed as teaching aids by the "establishment" (like TV and comics were in my day) they all offer exciting opportunities for learning.
SKILL 'EM ALL
Young people need new skills if they are to learn effectively today - and to thrive in business tomorrow. The ability to consume long pages of text is no longer enough. They need to know how to find, sort and analyse digital information. To deduce not by rote but by problem-solving leaps of logic. To understand how to communicate and create using images, signs and video. To utilise the communication skills that work best in 2014: be they sentences, SMS or Emoji. To be visually and gesturally literate as well as linguistically literate.
They need to be what respected educational theorists The New London Group call "Multi-Literate":
"[Education's] fundamental purpose is to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, and economic life. ... The multiplicity of communications channels and increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in the world today therefore call for a much broader view of literacy than portrayed by traditional language-based approaches. ... Linguistic Meaning, Visual Meaning, Audio Meaning, Gestural Meaning, Spatial Meaning, and the Multimodal patterns of meaning that relate the first five modes of meaning to each other." 'A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures', The New London Group, 1996
TEACH YR CHILDREN WELL
All of this is not to say we should ignore reading as a skill. But it's vital to temper our focus on reading with an understanding that other media could become at least, if not more, important. Language and communication evolve. We no longer speak the language of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Just because a word is shortened or "Americanised", doesn't devalue it.
We need to stop worshipping the traditional, linear, written word as the only true indicator of intelligence. Stop condemning some children as having "learning difficulties" but rather understand them as having "linguistic learning difficulties" alongside perhaps greater "visual learning abilities". And embrace the exciting opportunities for learning and self-expression these new media can offer.
If I thought the written word was going to remain the most important medium in future, I'd be organizing sit-ins in libraries and putting up bunting for the Grammar Police Ball. But if the dominance of words is giving way to new visual and tangible media, then shouldn't we be teaching children how to use those well instead?
By focusing solely on traditional literacy skills, we are discouraging their ability to skillfully utilise and interact with new, more visual media. And in doing that, we are handicapping them for the future: commercially and socially. They will not thank us for it.