Reading can give children analytical skills in this age of information overload. As another Children’s Day comes around what can we do to foster this habit...It is not enough to simply teach the mechanics of reading and writing... literacy informs a way of life.
Snazzy video-games, 24/7 online access, instant messaging and the omnipresent TV have children in their thrall. In today’s pixellated world, youngsters, reared on a diet of gadgets and gizmos, have little time for books. While parents are proud of their e-savvy kids, getting children to read can be a Herculean task. Parents complain that children have short attention spans, read only comics and tire easily of chapter books.
Even the Harry Potter magic hasn’t really worked, as most children sheepishly admit that they have only watched the movies. As we raise a new generation of e-readers who seamlessly navigate virtual terrain, are we losing certain skills? And despite dizzying digital distractions, is it possible for parents to raise a reader, not just the e-variety, but the traditional sort who can enjoy a book, cover to cover?
Vinod, a quintessential NXgener, usually does research for school projects on the Internet. Like many kids his age, he begins his project on magnetism, due the next day, at 6.00 p.m. on a Sunday evening, even though the assignment was given weeks in advance, knowing that he just has to Google key words for information to “pop up” in a jiffy. He skims and scans four or five websites, barely glancing at each for more than a few seconds. He then copy-pastes and prints information and illustrations. As his teacher insists that he handwrites projects, Vinod dutifully copies fragmented pieces of text, interspersed with visuals printed from the Net.
This kind of project barely promotes skills essential for meaningful research, which include the ability to think analytically and inferentially, synthesise information from various sources and critically evaluate the legitimacy of sources and information. As information is literally available on people’s fingertips nowadays, we need to foster these skills because the Internet also misinforms and misdirects. Ironically, the good, old-fashioned art of reading books helps cultivate discerning minds that are necessary for making informed decisions in the Information Age.
According to the noted educationist David Olson, reading changes the cognitive landscape of the reader and makes him more observant. In spoken language, a speaker’s intentions are often conveyed in more than just words.
When a person speaks, she conveys meaning through tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures in addition to words. However, in writing, these extra-linguistic features are absent and meaning has to be conveyed through words only. Thus, the reader is introduced to a new vocabulary, not usually used in speech. By learning words to describe non-verbal cues, readers and writers become more aware of these nuances of communication.
Reading also allows a child to take on the perspective of another. As the child identifies with a character in a book, she may show greater empathy towards others as she is used to viewing situations from multiple lenses. Most stories centre around a conflict and attempts at its resolution. These literary problem-solving experiences serve as fodder when a child is confronted with similar issues.
As children become “mind readers”, not only their thoughts but also their behaviour changes. According to psychologist Penelope Vinden, children “become not just little reactors to the world, but little reflectors on the world.” The art of reflection gradually extends to different domains and flickering attention spans get lengthened.
What can parents and teachers do to foster the reading habit in children? First, it is important to talk to children and engage in narrative dialogue. While this may seem self-evident to most parents, very often, in the humdrum of running our lives, we ‘tell’ children what to do without actually talking to them.
As far as possible, parents should expand on their utterances to children and use a variety of words and sentence forms. Speaking in more than one language, which is the rule rather than the exception in most middle-class Indian homes, is also beneficial as early bilingual exposure, before age three, has a positive impact on reading and language development.
The best time
And when is the best time to get children interested in books? As early as possible. Reading aloud to an infant is a stimulating and bonding experience for both parent and child. As a two-year-old hears the cadences of her father’s voice rise and fall, the warm, fuzzy emotion of being soothed on a parent’s lap is paired with the act of reading, which is then perceived as a pleasurable activity. The child also gains print awareness, starting with the recognition that squiggles on a page stand for spoken words.
Parents sometimes bemoan that their kids have tons of books at home but still don’t read. However, simply stocking bookshelves does not create a conducive environment for reading. It is not books per se that distinguish literacy-enriched homes from literacy-impoverished ones but the culture that pervades the house.
Few parents actually serve as role models by reading themselves. When parents engage in literary pursuits, children are likely to follow suit. A literacy-enriched home is one in which all members of the family can be found snuggled with books. At dinner time, parents discuss news stories and ask children for their views. The tedium of long car journeys is broken by playing hangman and word building. Sunday afternoons are spent around a Scrabble board. Regular visits to libraries are another feature of these homes.
Some children, in spite of being immersed in such an environment, fail to develop into readers. Exasperated parents complain that their kids have short attention spans and only pick books below their reading or grade level. Children’s attention spans for reading may be cultivated by reading aloud, even to older children. As the child does not have to put effort into decoding words, she may get drawn into the story more easily. Parent and child may also take turns reading aloud. For silent reading, allow the child to pick a book, regardless of the level. As the child’s facility with reading improves, he will graduate to more mature choices. Audio books may also be used to entice children into reading.
Teachers also play a significant role in promoting reading. Most Indian schools think that the job of reading instruction is done once children can decode words accurately. However, reading accurately is only one dimension of instruction. A critical aspect of reading instruction that is severely neglected in our schools is fluency. Our system of education does not place adequate emphasis on reading for meaning.
Teachers may model comprehension strategies like making connections between the text and the self, the world and other books. Children may be guided, initially through pictures, on how to visualise vivid descriptions, how to make inferences and decipher meaning of unknown words from contextual cues.
Finally, just as homes can promote a literate culture, schools may motivate students to read by inviting local authors, recognising readers of the month and organising language labs, book clubs and reading-related projects.
For India to achieve 100 per cent literacy in the fullest sense, it is not enough to simply teach the mechanics of reading and writing. Ultimately, literacy informs a way of life. Instead of children reading under pressure, we should strive to be a nation full of children reading for pleasure.
Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the Director of PRAYATNA, Centre for Educational Assessment and Intervention. E-mail email@example.com.