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The literate generation that just won’t read

Wednesday September 11 2019


KDS bookshop in Nyeri. The displacement of bookshops by the gadgetry of modern life means the reading for fun, for knowledge, and for heuristic purposes, is dying. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Kenya joined the world in celebrating the International Literacy Day, an annual event held on eighth of September since 1966. This year’s theme was Literacy and Multilingualism.

For starters, the United Nations defines literacy as ‘the ability to read and write, with understanding, a short, simple statement about one’s everyday life’. Notably, such ability is not tied to any language.


With such a low threshold, literacy levels in most countries are above half their populations. For instance, in 2014, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics pegged the youth literacy level in Sub-Saharan Africa at 70 per cent. Kenyan youth were at 82per cent.

Whereas the stated statistics represent the most basic form of literacy, at least from the UN definition of the concept, they paint a picture of hope towards higher forms of literacy such as writing and manipulation of numerals. And such must be sought after, for they lay the ground for the education of the masses and subsequent life-long learning. The UN extols literacy owing to its instrumentality in eradication of poverty and inequalities.

Against all these, there is hue and cry over a generation that is literate but just won’t read. Ideally, it is a generation that has surpassed basic literacy levels, most of it being in high school and college; a generation that finds no interest in reading content that relates to its areas of study, or even general knowledge, despite their unparalleled ability to do so. This apathy towards reading has been christened ‘aliteracy’, and is growing by the day.


Many reasons have been advanced to explain aliteracy. Top on the list has been the motive for reading. Ideally, many students read for examination. Such readership is narrowly confined within the syllabus or course outline as provided for in high schools and colleges respectively.


Here, reading ends as soon as summative tests are done. Whereas some may be lucky to pass the tests, they cannot be considered as intellectually excellent since they lived such a narrow academic life. Having read so little, they are starved of knowledge around their field; knowledge that would have contributed towards awakening the creative potential that lies within. Zombies they become.

In as much as we talk about aliteracy, some scholars hold different views. For instance, Monica Urban – an assistant professor at the College of Sequoias, California – comes to the defense of the so-called Generation Z (those born within 1995 – 2015) concerning their apathy towards reading. For her, it is not fair to quickly judge the current generation of students. She attributes their change of heart to non-academic issues that get into their way, making them abscond classes and leave their assignments undone. These include mental crises that arise from their socio-economic backgrounds, and modern technological solutions such as social media. The scholar roots for the need to redefine ‘reading’ so that we capture all the content consumed by these youngsters outside the conventional readership of books. These include podcasts and self-improvement books.


Going forward, we may want to rethink about what attracts the youth to read particular materials while shunning others; what motivates students to go read beyond that which they have listened to in their respective classrooms, or just get disinterested altogether. Instructively, social media has a way of presenting material therein. Brevity, precision, illustration and colour are just but part of the allure. Who wants to read boring, monotonously designed text when there abound thrilling alternatives? Can we rightfully blame generations X, Y and Z for being glued to social media and other electronic forms such as the television? Clearly, millennials and previous generations could afford to settle down and read since they had less luxurious distractions. The current generation has a task of resisting these distractions so as to read. We thus must repackage the reading materials so that they reflect some of the alluring characteristics of the supposed distractors, if we still want our children to read. Tutors may need to present their materials in creative ways that will kindle the learners’ curiosity for further reading. In short, we should shun whining over aliteracy, and proceed to give students new reasons to go back to reading.

Mr Osabwa is a lecturer at Alupe University College, Busia. [email protected]