Over the last couple of years, I have developed a strong interest in investigating why some children are readers and others are not. My interest arose after marking a particularly appalling set of exam papers for Grade 8 (12-13 year olds) in February of 2010. All but a few managed to write an essay that had a beginning, middle and end, that used paragraphs and that contained a well-narrated, interesting storyline. I started reading widely on the subject and also asked the pupils themselves what they had read as children and what their parents had read to them. I was shocked to find that more than half could not remember anyone reading to them at all. I was also shocked to find out how many of them had televisions and/or playstations in their rooms. I came to the conclusion that, though I was teaching at a private school, many of the pupls had actually suffered some degree of emotional neglect: some hardly saw their parents at all and were looked after by a maid. A couple were even left alone in the house for more than one night with just the maid or gardener for company and a driver to bring them to school. The following is a talk I gave at Foundation Steps Nursery School In Ndola:
I’d like to begin by telling you I’m not an expert of any sort. I haven’t got a degree in education and nor have I written a book about it. What then, you may ask, are my credentials? I’m a secondary English teacher so why should I bother myself with the lower end of the educational spectrum? The fact of the matter is that I am asked by many, many parents to give their children extra lessons. For some, it is their ardent belief that extra English tuition will help their children pass their IGCSEs. Of course, these parents have good intentions, but I’ll tell you right now that there is very little one can do to improve one’s English after a certain age. Punctuation, pronunciation and imaginative input: all these have their foundations laid at a young age. My first question to these parents is always: ‘Does your child read?’ I don’t think I have ever received the answer, ‘Yes’. The truth of the matter is that children who read, write well. The two are inextricably linked. I can honestly say that I don’t know anyone who writes imaginative essays with good use of punctuation who never picks up a book. The top pupils in English always have a book with them.
I consider myself very lucky in life for two reasons in particular, among others. Firstly, when I was growing up in Zimbabwe, there was only one TV channel. Children’s programmes were on at a certain time, not all day as they are today. Most importantly, however, I had a mother who read to me. Every single night we had a story. She either read to us from a book, or made up stories in her head. We had books for birthdays and books for Christmas. We were taught to love and respect them. They were everywhere in the house. Both my parents read and many of the books that were read to us were classics and favourites that they themselves had read as children.
Now, going back to the parents who ask me how to improve their children’s English, I said the first question I ask is whether they read or not. 99% of the time, it’s no. But then I also have parents add, ‘I don’t know why. We read. We love reading. We read all the time.’ The question is though, have those parents made reading a shared experience? A child, for instance, who feels their parents’ attention is not on them, but on a book, who constantly feels second place to a book, will not view reading as a pleasant experience and will probably be put off books. That is why it is very important to read to your children. It shows them that you want to share something with them and that you are able to give them your time.
Many parents do not have time to share with their kids. They buy them things: toys, games, dvds – but have no intention of sitting down and playing with them. It’s also very easy to put the TV on while you’re working or cooking or whatever you’re doing and stick your child in front of it. It’s the perfect babysitter. But when reading, you’re taking time out from your busy schedule and sitting down and saying, I have time for you.
Reading to your children creates a special bond. Perhaps you’re in their bedroom, they’re ready for bed, winding down: the atmosphere is one of quiet and calm. You look at pictures, you answer questions about the story, perhaps you predict what’s going to happen in the end. There’s this shared experience which doesn’t happen with computer games or toys. You’ll find children like to snuggle up to you; it’s not the same as sending them to bed to read by themselves. Children who are hyperactive tend to calm down when being read to. If you give them a cup of warm milk, this will also help settle them. Children love routine. If you set a time to read together every day, they will look forward to this and learn to appreciate it. As much as possible, don’t upset this routine once you’ve started it because it doesn’t work for you. It’s like breaking a promise. Young children also like reading the same book over and over: this gives them a feeling of security. You are not sitting down to read them War and Peace - it is usally a period of fun for parents and children alike. Very young children love books where certain words are repeated or they have to look under the flaps for animals or things. Older children like books with funny characters or where they have to think about something, like solve a mystery.
Unfortunately, not all parents are at home when their kids go to bed. Perhaps a maid or a relative is putting them to sleep. If possible, encourage them to read to your kids if you can’t be at home. This can be difficult if their reading skills are not too strong, but everyone can at least look at a picture book and discuss what’s going on. One of the biggest mistakes is in thinking that children won’t understand something. Children understand far more of the world than we give them credit for. It also surprises me that many parents will say that their child is too young for books, but will happily sit them down in front of the tv and watch their children imitate singing and dancing or look at various characters. If you read a simple picture book of farm animals for instance with a one year old, they will soon pick up noises that each animal makes and what to look out for on each page. You’ll soon be able to ask 'where’s the duck?' or watch them point at a dog and try and say 'woof, woof'.
Many people believe that you can read to newborn babies, some that you can read to a baby before its even born. Obviously, they won’t understand a story, but they understand tone, the way you speak to them and a 'reading voice' is a comforting one. They will therefore associate the act of reading with a sense of well-being and thus develop a positive attitude towards books. Many children who don’t like reading are those who have been put off it, and this is usually because they see reading as a task. They associate it with school. Now, if you’re not a strong reader and maybe you stutter and stumble a bit or find long words difficult to pronounce, you’ll associate reading with a feeling of embarrassment from having to read aloud and having others laugh at you. Moreover, class readers are often quite boring and predictable and don’t necessarily stimulate interest in reading for its own sake.
But if a child is read TO, those pressures disappear. They can sit back and listen and enjoy the story. Adults can use a range of tones in their telling of the story, or they might use different voices for different characters. The atmosphere they create is generally far more exciting than that of the child who is just trying to get past the words, plodding along, and missing the story.
If you read to your children, they can develop their reading skills and also their vocabulary. You can obviously read them harder books than they can, so you are always pushing those boundaries for them, otherwise they will get stuck with only the books they can read and those tend to be very basic. They can ask what certain words mean and you’ll be surprised how easily they pick up and remember them. By the time a child is five, they should be choosing books with chapters, where they have to wait for the next installment every night. This improves their attention skills; they have to remember what happened the previous night and they come to realise that a story can go on and take various twists and turns. This is very different to the instant gratification of televison programmes.
This gives you the opportunity to talk about the story at other times, perhaps at a meal time or in the car on the way to school. 'What do you think is going to happen next?' you can ask. This helps develop a child’s imagination and create their own stories. Again, this is something that TV doesn’t do. It doesn’t allow you to imagine characters and plot differently to what is shown on the screen. Everything is given to you and is therefore what is termed passive learning.
Nursery rhymes and songs are also very important. The songs often tell a story or they have actions which go with which involve the child. Nursery rhymes are instrumental in helping children to spell because of the rhyming action: children learn to predict which word is coming next.
Every parent wants to give their children the best and often we think the best is what we didn’t have in our own childhoods. This usually means televisions and dvd players or the latest gadget or phone. We think that if we are able to provide our children with their OWN tv set, then we must have really made it in life, because we never had that. We are also sometimes worried about the amount of technology that our children are subjected to, but tend to think, what else can we do? This is the world today. If we take away the television set, my child will fall behind somehow in comparison to their peers. So although we don’t like something, we go along with it.
First and foremost we must remember that the most important thing we can give our children is our time. Children thrive when they know they are the centre of their parents’ lives. TV is not all bad as long as it is not used as a babysitter and as long as there is some control imposed, both in terms of the time it is allowed on and the content that is viewed. Sit and watch some TV together, see what your kids are watching, take an interest. Don’t just use the TV as a way of getting them to keep quiet while you do something else. If your children are able to join a library, ask them what they are reading or go with them and make suggestions. It means a lot to a child if you can pass on to them your love of a particular author or character. Even with older children – and here I mean teenagers – read what they are reading. Too often we assume the teenager’s world is one that we can’t share or that we will find nothing of interest in – but you can save yourself a lot of hassle with bad behaviour if you make an attempt to share that world.
You don’t have to feel you need to go home and sell the television set off. What you do need to do, is monitor how much time your child spends in front of the TV and the content of what they are watching. Channels like CBeebies are great, channels like Cartoon Network aren’t. Make sure your child does not fall asleep in front of the television. And also make sure the TV is only on when someone is watching it. I have been to many homes where the TV is on in the background from the time you wake up in the morning till the time you go to bed, even if no one is there. The danger with this is that it does not encourage listening skills and has been blamed for the increase in ADHD and other behavioural difficulties. Children who are subjected to a lot of noise, learn to cut it out. And, believe you me, they include you in that noise! If possible, please do not be tempted to put a TV in your child’s room. Children need quiet time and they need a quiet room. They also need to wind down after a day’s activities, not be hyped up by TV which is very stimulating.
If you are an avid reader, share that love with your children; don’t take the ‘why don’t you read’ approach. Show them how to love reading, and don’t let your love of reading make them feel excluded. It is very important for boys especially to see their fathers read. And fathers should also be encouraged as much as possible to read to their children as well. Buy your children books. Make them feel books are special. Show them how to hold them and turn the pages. Don’t make them feel that books are second to television or a DVD. Some parents feel they have to buy all the classics for their children as this is good reading matter. However, it’s more important that a child enjoys what is being read to them and doesn’t find it boring. Reading to your children must not be seen as a chore. Remember, you are teaching them to LOVE something!