Forget the crisps and buy a book, it will be a lot better for your children
In the rush before Christmas I almost missed it, but I am glad I came across a report from the National Literacy Trust. It stated that one in eight children has never been given a book as a present.
Among children in disadvantaged communities, the figure rises to as high as one in five. The key word there is "never". There are children who have never been given even one book as a present.
The report also found that children who read every day outside school are five times more likely to read above the expected level for their age than those who do not read at home.
In the context of the concern about educational underachievement and the need to promote educational excellence, that is a stark figure and it highlights the importance of reading and books.
I was brought up in a home where my mother and father read books and we visited the library regularly. Yes, my father was captivated by cowboy books and I think he had read every one that Zane Grey had ever written, but the fact was that he was reading and I saw him reading and enjoying his reading.
It is a privilege to grow up in a home with books, to see people reading books and to be given books as presents and prizes and it helps to create a love of books.
At this point I should confess that I am a book addict and I can hardly walk past a bookshop, or a library, without going in, but as addictions go this is probably one of the most beneficial.
The American writer and blogger Annie Mueller observed that: "Reading is the most painless way to improve your vocabulary, spelling and grammatical proficiency". It also stimulates your mind, increases knowledge, reduces stress levels and improves your memory and concentration.
According to Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust: "The more a child reads, the better their writing is likely to be, as well as their speaking and listening skills. Literacy empowers children, particularly those from the most disadvantaged communities, to do better at school and beyond, transforming their life chances."
There are many factors that contribute to educational underachievement, but poor literacy is certainly one of them. Good literacy is fundamental to a good education.
Earlier this year, the noted author David McCullough wrote a biography of the Wright brothers, who are credited with inventing and building the world's first aeroplane.
In explaining their success, he said: "They had something many houses didn't have. They had books. They had parents who encouraged curiosity about everything."
The very fact that you are reading a 650-word article in a newspaper demonstrates that you are a reader. However, for some people today, their daily reading is restricted to a few Facebook posts, or the instructions on a box.
They don't read books and newspapers regularly and they live in homes where there are very few books, or no books at all. That undoubtedly influences the children who grow up in these homes.
Apart from what schools do in the classroom, it is good to see many of them running programmes that encourage parents to read with their children. Seventy-five per cent of parents wish their children would read more for fun and this is one of the best ways to help a child become a frequent reader.
More than 40% of frequent readers aged between six and 10 were read to out loud at home, but the figure drops to 13% for infrequent readers.
Moreover, book-buying doesn't need to be costly. A book can be a very cheap purchase and you can buy a very attractive book for children for little more than the price of a couple of bags of crisps.
The crisps will be consumed in a matter of hours, but the book and the benefit will last for years.
- Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee.