Flanders launches a reading offensive

24 November 2021

In ten years, Flanders wants to be among the top five countries with the best reading skills. That is ambitious, because today we are trailing behind internationally. The Flemish Government wants to catch up with a major reading offensive called “Leesoffensief”, primarily aimed at people who today hardly read or even do not read at all. The focus is on preschoolers, children in after-school care and students in technical and vocational education, among others. Flemish Minister of Culture Jan Jambon and Flemish Minister of Education Ben Weyts will invest some EUR 2 million next year, and a reading fund will be set up to finance extra schemes. The reading offensive will first unite all forces in the field and aims to mobilise as many people as possible, for example by people reading aloud in many more places. A national reading day, the “Nationale Leesdag”, will underline the importance of reading and reading aloud (and continuing to do so). “We want to get as many Flemish people as possible to read again,” Jan Jambon and Ben Weyts say.

Reading skills in Flanders are poor. Our ten-year-olds rank just 32nd in the international PIRLS comparison of 45 countries when it comes to reading comprehension. One in five doesn’t even reach the minimum level. We are thus trailing behind internationally. Flemish children need about an extra two years to reach the same reading level as ten-year-olds in the best-performing countries. Every other study confirms the problem. There are many well-intentioned initiatives to promote reading, but they are very fragmented, and these reading schemes usually only reach people who anyway already read. A growing group now reads less and less or not at all. And this is while reading is the absolute foundation for all learning. It is essential for success in both standard and higher education, and it is a crucial building block for the cultural and personal development of children, young people and adults.

The Flemish Government now wants to turn the tide with a major reading offensive. The ambition is to be among the top five countries with the best reading skills in ten years. This can be done by uniting all forces, streamlining all initiatives and focusing resolutely on Flemish people who today hardly read or even do not read at all. Flemish Minister of Culture Jan Jambon and Flemish Minister of Education Ben Weyts will release some EUR 2 million for this alone next year. An action plan has been prepared with dozens of new initiatives. A few highlights:

  1. Book start in nursery education
    The reading offensive wants to reach the very youngest before they go to school and before they learn to read themselves. One of the ways this will be done is in nursery school with the “Boekstart” (Book start) project, which provides parents with book packages tailored to their children.
  2. A wave of reading and reading aloud projects in new and unexpected places
    As many people as possible will be mobilised to read aloud on a large scale, also in places where this is currently not being done or not being done enough. For example, there will be reading aloud projects after school hours as well as during classes, with a specific focus on non-readers and weak readers.
  3. Author residencies in technical and vocational schools
    Authors will work together for weeks or even months with technical and vocational schools with many students from disadvantaged groups.
  4. Establishment of a reading fund
    The Royal Academy for Dutch Language and Literature is cooperating with several Flemish funds and the Iedereen Leest (Everybody Reads) organisation to coordinate a fund that can also attract private funds to finance extra reading schemes.
  5. An annual national reading day
    Following the example of “Ireland Reads”, Flanders will also be organising an annual national reading day, the “Nationale Leesdag”, to emphasise the importance of reading and reading aloud (and continuing to do so).

The reading offensive is gaining many allies. The intention is to initiate a broad social movement in cooperation with schools, youth associations, libraries and the general arts and culture sector, among others. Parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts must also become involved. A broad social conversation about the importance and beauty of reading must be started.

There will be a broad and attractive promotional campaign for reading, similar to the STEM campaigns. There is also a great deal going on in the powerhouses of reading policy. For example, fragmented reading schemes need to be much better streamlined. Projects with an extensive reach and sustainable impact are given priority. Flanders also wants to move away from short-term schemes without a long-term effect: from now on, programmes lasting at least three years will be aimed at, and objectives that envision nine years ahead will be used. All allies with a heart for reading will be brought together. Good reading practices must be spread much more widely through so-called learning networks. The intention is also to give child care workers, preschool teachers and teachers many more tools to read with and for children and young people. More attention will therefore be given to language and reading in school.

Minister-President Jan Jambon says: “The world is evolving at lightning speed, and it is good that we are on the digital train. But there’s more: Flanders wants to play a pioneering role in innovation. At the same time, we have to nurture our reading culture. The trick in the next few years will be to bring this ‘both-and’ story to a successful conclusion.”

“When it comes to reading, we are one of the weaker countries today. But we are going to be one of the stars,” says Flemish Minister of Education Ben Weyts. “We will do this by focusing on non-readers, by stimulating children from a very young age and by working gradually. There is no point in immediately forcing young people to read thick novels. You get to like reading step by step.”

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