Czechs - Europe's biggest bookworms and poorest readers?

Vaclav Havel with his wife Dagmar, photo: CTK

Reading has friends in some very high places here in the Czech Republic. Last week, former president Vaclav Havel and a group of other famous names besides got together to encourage parents to read to their children for at least twenty minutes a day. To support the cause, Mr. Havel and friends chose their own favourite children's book, and read from it, to an audience of young Czechs, up way past their bed time.

Vaclav Havel with his wife Dagmar,  photo: CTK
Former President Havel read one of his own stories, called 'Pizduch Zalesak', or 'Pizduch in the Woods'.

Eva Katrusakova organized the event:

"The idea actually originated in American Jim Trelease's book 'The Read-Aloud Handbook'. But, the biggest and best campaign of this kind is held in Poland. There are famous personalities reading to children today; Mr. Havel and Mrs. Havel and Mrs. Spotakova. The motto: read to children every day, for twenty minutes a day!"

Petr Pothe,  photo: CTK
Petr Pothe is a child psychologist, he agrees with the idea behind Mrs Katrusakova's campaign. I asked him what he thought were the benefits of a bedtime story:

"Well, it's certainly about expanding their minds and their ability to fantasise, challenging their imagination. I would say it is necessary, especially in this day and age of internet and TV, that children train their imagination."

And, according to Mr Pothe, parents, or at least the parent-child relationship, benefits from the activity as well:

"Fantasy is very important for a child's emotional development, because in fantasy children can resolve many mental conflicts. And, if the parent is assisting in this process, then it is particularly valuable, because the child feels that he or she is important to the parent. The child gets the parent's full attention, so it is very important also from the perspective of the parent-child relationship."

In a recent study, speech therapists recommended that Czechs should read to their children more. They attributed a sharp rise in speech defects amongst younger Czechs to the fact that parents spent less and less time reading to their children. According to the survey, the number of young people stuttering in the Czech Republic had doubled since 1990. Would Mr Pothe put this down to parents not reading to their children, as the study did?

Photo: CTK
"I think that it is about the communication and the amount of conversation that children are having with other people, not only with the parents. Our age is very quick, and very fast, and so I think there is not much space for patient interaction, which gives the child enough space and time to reflect upon his words, upon his thoughts. I think it is a widespread problem, and it is definitely a sign that something is wrong in children's environment and upbringing."

And the news gets worse. In another recent study, Czechs were found to be amongst the most functionally illiterate in Europe. Tatana Holasova from the Teaching Research Institute in Prague explains:

"Amongst the OECD countries - so that's most European Union member states plus Australia, Canada and the US etc. - the Czech Republic ranked above average when it came to mathematic and scientific literacy, and below average when it came to reading comprehension."

Young Czechs actually ranked second worst in this study, as far as reading was concerned. But before we start lamenting that young Czechs just don't know their alphabet, Mrs Holasova has a word of warning. She sees the results as misleading:

"This isn't because Czech children read less than anyone else, nor is it that they don't know how to read. But instead it is because this research is founded upon a series of tests which our children have to do. And our children aren't used to this sort of test. These are not the sort of tests that our children, up until now, have been set in school, they are being asked to solve problems in an unfamiliar way. And the texts that they are being asked to read are much longer than they are used to. So what we are trying to do here in this institute is work on some model tests of this type and create a booklet of them for teachers."

To confuse matters further, the Czech National Library released figures in October showing that Czechs were amongst the most voracious readers in Europe. According to the statistics, Czechs read on average around 60 books a year. How is it that Czechs can be Europe's biggest bookworms and have one of Europe's lowest rates of functional literacy?

"It's true that you see lots of Czechs, especially in Prague, reading on public transport on their way to work, and when they are waiting at the bus stop. And they aren't just reading newspapers, even though you get so many of these free newspapers now on your way to work. This is where Czechs do their serious reading, you see lots of people reading crime fiction on their commute, and all sorts of other genres besides. So I would say that this is why Czechs rank amongst Europe's biggest bookworms, but I would add that it is mostly older people who are doing this."

"Younger Czechs feel increasingly that they don't have the time to read, that they have too much work to do and too little time to do it in. Younger people tend to read the news on the internet, or watch it on the TV, they are out of the habit of reading."

Petr Pothe agrees with Mrs Holasova. He sees a marked difference in reading habits between young and old:

"I think that the gap between generations is increasing, and that children now are very different from their parents. There are some exceptions, for example Harry Potter is a book which is very good for children's imagination, but if you take a movie and compare it to a book - at least this is what I see with my children - children very quickly loose their images, their symbols and their pictures. Now when my son is reading Harry Potter, his pictures are completely based on the movie, but before he saw the film his fantasy and his imagination was a lot bigger."

But what of our celebrities? Why do they think it is important to read to children, and get children reading? Barbora Spotakova is the World Javelin Champion:

"Parents should read to their children, because children retain such happy memories from these moments. For me, it was very important that my parents read to me, and in this hectic day and age, I think it is even more important for children."

Do you still read a lot today? Are you a big reader in general?

"I have to say I'm not. Because I mostly read magazines, and the books I read are about ecology and pedology, because I am still studying at the University of Agriculture here. So, I don't have time to read my favourite books, but maybe if I had more time, then I would find some time for reading."

And if you had children...

"Yes, I am really looking forward to being able to read to them."

... While Zdenek Sverak is an Oscar-winning actor and director. He is one of the country's biggest celebrities, and the man behind the music you have been hearing in this report. He has even presented a television show helping children learn how to read and write:

"I think it is a very good idea to read to children or, in my case, grandchildren every day. Because you catch them at the time when they are clearheaded and ready for sleep. And your task is to be interesting. You have to support their fantasies. I was very glad, and I am very glad now, as a grandfather - it's a gift for me to have my grandchild over for the evening, and to read to him."