Does it have to be book vs computer?

The MS Readathon, a key fundraiser for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, which encourages children to raise money by reading books might not continue next year because less and less children are taking part.  According to The West Australian newspaper, the Chief Executive of the MS Society has gathered feedback suggesting that children are choosing computers and TV in favour of sitting down to read a book.  Apart from the sad fact that the Society will lose a key source of revenue if the Readathon is cancelled, it’s disappointing that TV and the Internet are replacing, rather than adding to, children’s activities like reading. 

Of course TV and computers are essential and I’m not for a minute suggesting we gather them all up and burn them.  But as a passionate advocate of the importance of encouraging kids to read books I wonder what the real reasons for a decline in interest are.  Is it because kids prefer the colour and movement of television stories and the chance to participate in the narrative of a computer game to the seemingly more static experience of a book?  Is it because kids are more likely to see their parents working on a computer or watching TV than sitting down to read a book, and thus model the same behaviour?  Perhaps, given the explosion in organised children’s activities, kids don’t go to the library as much as they used to and are less exposed to books?  Or perhaps they’re finding other ways to develop their literacy skills through online and virtual reading programs?

I don’t know what the answer to my question is.  I do know that it certainly isn’t that our interest in children’s literacy is declining.  The launch of the My School website is testament to that, responding to a presumed need that parents have to compare the literacy and numeracy results of their children’s school against others.  And I know that there are children at my daughter’s school as young as five who have been enrolled in programs such as Kumon in order to give them a head start in Maths and English skills.

When my daughter started Kindergarten in February, I was surprised to see a computer in the classroom for the children to use.  It’s set on a drawing program, which the kids use to colour in pictures on a screen rather than using textas on paper.  My daughter watched the other kids in her class using this computer for the first few weeks with a great deal of curiosity.  She often sees me working on my laptop at home but she has never used it and knows she’s not allowed to touch it or else mummy gets really mad – I have visions of the latest draft of my novel disappearing forever if anyone goes near my computer.  I think as she watched the kids at Kindy using the computer, she was wondering if the teacher was going to send them all to Time-out or something! 

Then a friend of ours sent us a month long subscription to the ABC Reading Eggs program, which is an online reading skills development program.  I had a look at it and then asked Ruby if she wanted to have a turn.  She did – perhaps initially because she was at last able to touch the previously off-limits computer.  And as she began to use the program I realised why there was a computer in the Kindy classroom.  Using a computer mouse is a learned skill; a 4 year old does not automatically possess the ability to navigate the cursor around the screen.  I had never thought about this.  And, given the amount of exposure kids have to computers at school these days, I suppose it makes sense for them to start learning these skills with a simple drawing program. 

I was also curious to see how Ruby would approach the Reading Eggs program; she is an avid ‘reader’ of books but, given her age, can really only recognise letters and words like her name.  Anyway, she loved it and cried when I told her it was time to turn it off.  She understood that she was learning something but she also liked the way the learning was presented.  Of course, time will tell if it’s just a novelty and her interest wears off.  But perhaps it will end up being a complementary way for her to learn pre-reading skills, not taking away from her actually reading books but giving her another way to learn the skill.

So, are computers and TV the evil usurpers of the book?  I don’t know.  I do know that they’re here to stay and that my children will have to learn the ways of both as they grow older.  I also know that the stimulation to the imagination that books provide will be hard to replace and should not be replaced.  Maybe I’m a dreamer but I’d like to see us live in a world where books are viewed with at least the same importance as TV and the Internet and where we recognise that it isn’t a question of one or the other; they all serve a purpose and it’s up to us to show our kids how to best learn from and play with each.  Oh, and if you’d like to support the MS Readathon, click on this link.

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