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Alaskan Range: Reading

"What better thing than a good book to give the children you care about,'' declares Greg Hill. "Everyone on my family gift list gets a book. They might get other things, too, but there's always a book...''

Western civilization doesn't stretch back far beyond old Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright who lived around 500 BCE. He's the earliest of the Greek playwrights and is considered the father of tragedy, which suits him since he was killed when an eagle carrying a turtle in the air dropped it on his head. However, before that sad event, Aeschylus wrote that "It is always in season for the old to learn."

That's good advice for those of us upon whom codgerism's creeping, and frequenters of our public libraries have no trouble locating learnable things. I was re-reading Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" recently and was struck by a prescient line from "The Pardoner's Tale." The Pardoner explains his work in the prologue, describing how he convinces the rubes to pay him for fake relics and papal papers that exculpate sinners. His listener's money is the Pardoner's bottom line. "For my exclusive purpose is to win," he boasts, "And not at all to castigate their sin./ Once dead what matter how their souls may fare?/ They can go blackberrying, for all I care!"

Here in the 21st century people are walking around "blackberrying," talking to the air with little earbud smartphone gizmos stuck in their ears. Perhaps it's geezerhood on the horizon, but I find some satisfaction in not being chained to communications technology 24/7. Yet I'm obviously not above utilizing verbal shorthands like "24/7." A new British Academy study on how student's literacy skills are affected by texting, which is defined by Dictionary.com as "the sending of text messages via cell phones or other mobile devices."

Text messages are limited to 140 characters, including spaces, so texters often use abbreviations to save space. The Coventry University researchers found that "Children who are heavy users of mobile phone text abbreviations such as LOL (laughing out loud), plz (please), l8ter (later) and xxx (kisses), are unlikely to be problem spellers and readers the ability to contract, clip, and manipulate words for texting relies on good phonological awareness, and doing so can help develop literacy."

On the "hooray" side of things, University of Illinois English professor Dennis Baron recently reported on his blog, "Web of Language," that "more and more grammar vigilantes are showing up on Twitter to police typos and grammar mistakes that they find on users' tweets." On the "uh-oh" side there's last week's NY Times article titled, "Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators." American and European educators have been testing 15-year-old students around the world using a standardized test, the "Program for International Student Assessment" (PISA), and the results are shocking.

The Shanghai students blew everyone away, even traditional academic powerhouses like Singapore and Taiwan. The average PISA score is 500, and in math Shanghai scored 600, Singapore was second with 562, and the US was in 31st place with 487. Our students did better in reading, tying a bunch of European countries in 17th place with an even 500. But Shanghai was first with 556. As President Obama put it when he learned the news, "our generation's Sputnik moment is back."

The geezers among you may recall the fear that the Soviet satellite instilled, and how that event ignited our space program. Any librarian will tell you the tried and true formula for turning kids into proficient readers who can sustain their comprehension longer than 140 characters: read to them every day, let them see you reading every day, and surround them with print, as a new Reading Is Fundamental study has reiterated. RIF funded a "meta-analysis" of 11,000 reports and "108 of the most relevant studies" and found that giving children ready access to print materials flat-out improves reading skills, especially in developing their ability for sustained reading and their attitude toward reading and learning.

What better thing than a good book to give the children you care about. Everyone on my family gift list gets a book. They might get other things, too, but there's always a book. Make sure they're enjoyable books, for parents and other caring geezers know the truth spoken by Themistocles, a Greek three years more ancient than Aeschylus: "I have with me two gods, Persuasion and Compulsion." And we all know which of those two works best.

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