The literacy story of the past week surely has to be the news that the fast-food chain McDonald’s is planning to give away 15 million book vouchers instead of toys with their ‘Happy Meals’ for children in the UK over the course of the next two years. The scheme, which has the backing of the National Literacy Trust in England and Wales, will provide customers with a £1 ‘Happy Reading’ voucher, redeemable at the high street store WH Smith, and follows on from a successful pilot scheme last year, in which 9 million copies of children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo’s books for younger children were dispensed along with the French Fries and Coke.
“This is a good thing. Books are expensive, and too many kids simply don’t have access to them at home. Anything (and you can bet the usual suspects will be along shortly to denigrate the very idea that anything positive should be said about a corporation like McDonald’s) that gets kids better access to books should be applauded.”
(Guardian Reader Comment)
A spokesman for McDonald’s said that a key aspect of the campaign was to encourage parents and children to read together, and that the ‘family-friendly restaurant environment’ would encourage this, an irony not lost on those in the UK who have been campaigning to protect their local libraries from cuts in local authority spending. The NLT welcomed the move, expressing the view that any attempt to address the fact that one child in three in Britain doesn’t own a book of their own has to be a good thing. Not everyone was convinced, however, with many seeing it simply as a cynical ploy on the part of the corporation to expand its business, burnish its image and attract more followers to the brand. Others went as far as to be morally outraged by the association of reading and learning with what they regard as a company which peddles ‘junk’ food to vulnerable consumers.
Dumbest story of the day – McDonald’s puts books in Happy Meals licensing.biz/news/10568/McD…
— Nicholas Burman (@NBurmanDesign) January 16, 2013
A quick look at the story on The Guardian’s website, and in particular the comments below the story, as well as the reaction on the social networking site Twitter, revealed the polarised nature of the reactions to the news, but whether you see the ‘free’ book scheme as a genuine attempt to improve the literacy of the nation’s children, or the latest move to expand the empire of the evil dictator Ronald McDonald, the story reinforces the close relationship between literacy and good health, the former in my opinion being a pre-requisite of the latter. Compare for example these outcomes from the First Level of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, the first from the Health and Wellbeing framework and the other from Literacy and English. Note also, incidentally, the expectation that these outcomes are achievable by most young people by the end of P4 (age 8 approximately!!).
‘I am discovering the different ways that advertising and the media can affect my choices.’
Curriculum for Excellence, Health and Wellbeing (Food and Health) Outcome 1-37a
‘To help me develop an informed view I can recognise the difference between fact and opinion.”
Curriculum for Excellence, Literacy and English (Reading – Understanding, Analysing and Evaluating) Outcome 1-18a
There can be little doubt that, just as reading habits are formed early and have a long-term effect on the future prospects and prosperity of the reader, the same can be said of eating habits, so the sooner that young people are equipped with the skills and the knowledge to make informed decisions about the choices they have, the better.
Opportunities for Teachers
Most of the young people in your class will have been to McDonald’s, and some of them will be regular visitors. Use the book promotion story to help them towards the two outcomes above. There are a number of ways in which you might do that:-
- Ask them whether they think the book voucher scheme is a good idea, and to write down the advantages as well as the potential criticisms. They WILL come up with them, including some which you had not imagined.
- Ask them to come up with any questions they might ask of McDonald’s about their food and about their business generally.
- Provide a selection of statements from the newspaper articles relating to the literacy promotion and ask the kids to sort them into two columns headed ‘FACT’ and ‘OPINION’. Many of these will be quite clearcut but others will involve some debate (which is a GOOD THING).
- Visit the McDonald’s website where many of their questions will already have been answered. Discuss whether they think the answers are satisfactory or not.
- Ask them to select those words and phrases which are particularly chosen to tempt you into buying the product, and which words are repeated. eg Why is the word ‘Happy’ used so often? (I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether to teach your eight-year-olds that ‘Happy Meal’ is a transferred epithet!)
- Look at the use of imagery on the website and in the company branding generally. Discuss the use of logos, and the ‘character’ of Ronald McDonald. What kind of character is he and what is his purpose?
Alternatively, you could address all of the same issues by putting the kids into groups, providing them with the necessary tools, giving them a deadline, and asking them to create an advertising campaign for their own new (healthy) addition to the McDonald’s range. I’m lovin’ it already, so I’d better stop there. Have fun.