NOW for a very risky undertaking: I will attempt to write 500 words about falling literacy standards without making any howlers myself, because even a single slip of a key can incite hordes/hoards? of petty-minded cut-throat critics.

As readers of this site/cite/sight may have noticed, Australia’s fashionably neo-con commentators have deemed the three Rs to be under serious threat from those soft-centred lefties who purport to run our schools. Instead of teaching kids to memorise the dates of the Burke and Wills expedition or to understand that the past imperfect is not the same thing as the black armband approach to Australian history, these chardonnay-sippers — who are mostly women, by the way, and shouldn’t be teaching boys at all — want them to “analyse texts”.

The 3-Rs cavalry is led by Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson, who ditched his diamond earring and his Labor Party membership to run for the Liberals back in 1996, which shows the value he places on principals (did I spell that right?).

Prominent commentators on the literacy debate in Tasmania are former school teacher Christopher Bantick, now a writer for The Mercury, and former optometrist Byron Harrison (can you just read that second line for me …), now a literacy researcher, who both place the blame for poor literacy levels on misguided teaching methods.

A point that often gets overlooked when talking about poor literacy rates in children is that nearly 20 per cent of Australian adults are functionally illiterate — that is, they would have a great difficulty filling in a form or using basic documents like bus timetables, let alone reading a newspaper, a Shakespeare play or an Essential Learnings school report. (Interesting how the abbreviation for Essential Learnings, ELs, is so close to ESL, which stands for English as a Second Language. This writer favours the Essential Learnings curriculum but the jargon certainly left it wide open to the carpers).

A further 27 per cent of adults are rated by an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey of 1996 as only able to use relatively short and simple texts.

The surprise of this 1996 survey was that adults under 45 had higher levels of literacy than older people. The ABS statisticians concluded that this may have been because older Australians tended to have less schooling.

(A truncated education didn’t stop a half-blind 92-year-old of my acquaintance from reciting The Village Blacksmith to me — a poem she had learnt at school 80 years earlier. Back then the emphasis of education was on memorising information — an almost pre-literate form of storing and passing on knowledge.)

So are we or are we not becoming less literate as a nation? The answer may come next year when the ABS repeats its Aspects of Literacy survey.

vry well, t/u

But I suspect the 3-R campaigners would not be satisfied with the ABS way of defining literacy.

For them, spelling always seems to be the big concern — spelling and the inability to construct correct sentences. How can people without these skills communicate, the critics say. The answer, delivered, in a thousand SMS messages a second, is “vry well, t/u”.

The 3-Rs brigade dislikes the interchangeability of texts in modern classrooms, where high school English may not necessarily involve studying novels or Shakespeare plays but the messages in soap operas or the rhyming schemes of rap songs. But there is no historical constancy to the form our repositories of stories and knowledge take.

Before printing, texts were transcribed by hand and so rare that they were left in the hands of scholars and priests to pass on in verbal form to others. Before written language, there was story-telling, song and dance or the information-rich practice of Aboriginal art. When radio came on the scene, we became all ears. With television, we were offered texts that looked and sounded like reality — an almost direct physical experience.

We are at a historic moment for literacy that has little to do with educational movements. We are witnessing the literacy standards of the first generation to be reared by the first TV generation.

Television was introduced in Australian in 1956 and with TV sets nearly as expensive as a family car, mass take-up was not immediate. Let’s say there was a TV set in every Australian home by 1962. The first generation to have grown up in front of the box would be 43 by now. They may have read books at home when they weren’t glued to Bonanza, Bandstand or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. but books were an option, not a mainstay.

Their children would be teenage or a little older now. How can these kids be expected to be whizzes at spelling and grammar when the family gathers around a screen when relaxing at home, rather than burying themselves in books?

Pre-TVers would often be voracious readers, consuming book after book after book. I used to read five adult novels a week as a high school student. All those written words, all that written English usage, all that general knowledge. How could school offer a comparable education?

The fact is, schools can’t. There simply isn’t that many hours in a school day to be spent on reading.

The home computer revolution may swing things back to the written word, however. The phonetic charms of chatroom communication may not please the 3-Rs brigade, but at least the kids are reading and riting again, rite?