It may be hard to reconcile the concept of poor literacy with a western European country such as the Netherlands, but research has revealed that one in five adults in Europe struggles with reading and writing beyond a basic level
What difference does reading to children make to their future? Research shows that reading to children for just 15 minutes a day means they hear one million more words per year. This means quality time spent with books improves youngsters’ language development, performance at school and literacy in adulthood. It would be easy to assume that low levels of literacy would not be a problem associated with economically-developed nations, but a national campaign in the Netherlands aims to encourage fathers to read to their children in an effort to make a difference in the crucial early years. “It’s not widely understood that literacy is a problem in the developed world,” says Hendrik Muilerman, chief executive of BP Netherlands. “But around one in five people across Europe between the ages of 16 and 65 suffer from what is known as functional illiteracy. This means that they have some ability to read and write but struggle in many everyday social and professional situations such as online banking or applying for a job.” Since 2004, BP Netherlands has supported the Reading & Writing Foundation in its activities to address the issue. The foundation’s founder and honorary chair H.R.H. Princess Laurentien, who is also UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development, argues that functional illiteracy affects people and issues across society and should therefore concern us all. “Individuals struggle to pay bills and find jobs, businesses lose productivity and face safety risks, and countries, as a whole, experience lower levels of wellbeing and increased social security and healthcare costs,” she says.
"If companies say that they are committed to productivity, the wellbeing of their employees and safety, literacy is not a nice-to-have, it is a need-to-have that cuts to the heart of their license to operate."
H.R.H. Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands
It is with this in mind that BP agreed to become a partner of the Fathers for Reading campaign, an initiative of the Reading Coalition [see below]. Six months in, ninety companies and organizations have now joined the initiative, including ABN AMRO, HEMA and the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. According to Princess Laurentien, the reasons for more companies to join are clear. “If companies say that they are committed to productivity, the wellbeing of their employees and safety, literacy is not a nice-to-have, it is a need-to-have that cuts to the heart of their license to operate. Literacy is critical to companies’ success and they should take pride in successfully addressing literacy problems.” Muilerman agrees that tackling literacy is a priority issue, not only for companies’ own operations, but also for the communities and countries that they operate in. “This is about enabling people to participate in society to their fullest potential, and to support economic growth as a whole.”
One in five people in Europe are functionally illiterate, on average
25% of parents in the Netherlands don’t read to their children
The number of companies and organizations that have signed up to the Fathers for Reading campaign
Research shows that in a quarter of all Dutch families, parents don’t read to their children. Fathers are particularly unlikely to join in, reading more than mothers in only 8% of all households. “It’s clear that reading to young children helps to prevent low literacy in the future,” says Muilerman. “It helps children to get better school results, improves their language development and vocabulary and stimulates their imagination and social skills.” The campaign aims to make a difference by targeting fathers in a variety of settings. Celebrity fathers have led reading events in public libraries, the father theme was at the heart of National Literacy Day and the Reading Coalition is providing free reading material to companies across the country to share with their employees. BP Netherlands is the first company to roll out the campaign by making books available online and in print to its 2,200 employees. Florus Gravestein, a maintenance technician at BP’s refinery in Rotterdam, is taking part in the Fathers for Reading campaign. He mainly reads to his daughter Nanou and son Yaël at weekends and is now making good use of the bookshelves at the refinery office. “They have quite a few books that my children haven’t read, so it’s nice to be able to borrow them. My daughter is doing more reading at school now and I’m sure that reading at home is helping with her school work. I think it’s a great idea and it’s nice to have your employer support things like this.” Beyond BP, Muilerman has convened a group of chief executives from across the Netherlands to support the campaign. The chief executives’ roles are to first strengthen literacy within their own companies, then to help create awareness in their wider networks and the communities in which they work. “The potential to reach people both inside and outside our own organizations is enormous,” he concludes.
In the spotlight
The Fathers For Reading campaign was developed by a coalition of five organizations, including Stichting Lezen & Schrijven (Reading & Writing Foundation). The Reading Coalition believes that reading enriches lives and opens doors; it is a prerequisite to participate in society. The five organizations have joined forces to encourage reading and language development, with two main goals:
- By 2025, no child should leave school with a reading deficiency
- By 2025, all adults are fully literate or are studying to become fully literate