Words fail us -- why the minister wants to improve literacy . . .
17pc of Irish 15-year-olds are so poor at reading that they cannot carry out everyday tasks
Irish schoolchildren are likely to spend more time on reading and writing as the new Government launches a drive to improve literacy.
Under the new plans, primary schools will have to spend 90 minutes each day on reading and writing. In disadvantaged schools this will be extended to 120 minutes.
There will also be moves to improve teacher training so that there is a greater focus on these basic skills.
There was general alarm in education circles at recent OECD figures showing that 17pc of Irish 15-year-olds -- and as many as one in four teenage boys -- are functionally illiterate.
This means the students would have difficulty with everyday tasks such as filling out forms, understanding bus timetables, reading maps and newspapers.
Education researchers may have had reservations about how the OECD figures were compiled, but there is agreement that we need to improve literacy as a matter of urgency.
The driving force behind Labour's strategy is Aodhan O'Riordain, who worked as a primary principal in the north inner city in Dublin before he was elected as a TD at the general election.
Although the strategy will ultimately be implemented by the new minister Ruairi Quinn, O'Riordain has campaigned to improve reading standards with a missionary zeal.
"It is simply unacceptable that in some areas as many as one-in-three children leave primary school unable to read or write properly,'' says the TD.
Under the Government's plan, which is included in the Programme for Government, every school will have to have a literacy action plan.
In disadvantaged schools literacy will be taught for two hours every day, and it will be taught for one-and-a-half hours in mainstream schools.
A reform of teacher training will be a key plank of the strategy. A recent draft action plan from the Department of Education and Skills highlighted the inadequacies of teacher training.
The report said: "It is possible to obtain a B Ed qualification (for primary teaching) in some colleges without completing intensive modules in the teaching of literacy.''
In other words, many teachers graduate from teacher training colleges without any expertise in how to teach reading.
Eemer Eivers of the Education Research Centre in Drumcondra, said: "The time spent on literacy in Irish schools is relatively low.''
She said there was also research that teachers were spending too much time studying academic subjects when going to training college, and not enough time actually learning how to teach.
The Department of Education report said there was also a need to "upskill'' preschool childcare staff, and to improve in-service training of teachers.
While teachers and principals will play an important part in improving standards, Aodhan O'Riordain believes that the campaign will have to be extended beyond the classroom.
"Ensuring that children learn reading skills almost begins at conception,'' said the Labour TD.
Aodhan O'Riordain said public health nurses could help to encourage parents of newborn babies to read to their children by presenting them with bundles of books.
A reading culture could also be further enhanced through crèches and by extending library opening hours.
O'Riordain also advocates literacy summer camps in disadvantaged areas to minimise the holiday slump experienced by primary school pupils.
Eemer Eivers of the Education Research Centre says: "Many parents do not understand that they play a crucial role in encouraging their children to read. One-in-10 Irish kids grows up in a home where there are between zero and 10 books in the house. That is really a literary desert.''
In its recent National Assessments of Maths and English Reading, the Education Research Centre emphasised the crucial role of parents in improving literacy.
Students tend to do better if their parents read for enjoyment, there are books in the home and parents feel confident about helping their children with reading.
Ireland's relative decline in reading skills has coincided with the growth of the internet as a mass medium, but there is little conclusive evidence the internet is the main cause of low standards.
According to the Education Research Centre, pupils tend to do better if they spend "no more than a moderate amount of time on school days on the internet or playing computer games".
According to the centre's study, parents should be advised to discuss books with their children and to discourage unmonitored access to televisions in bedroom.
Eemer Eivers says there is a need for a general improvement in literacy skills.
"We should not just help the children at the bottom end of the skills spectrum. Children at the top end should also be helped to become high achievers.''