Children don’t read: Myth or Reality?
I grew up in a Nepali village. The school was far from my house, so I had to walk one and half hour uphill. During those days, in our school and village, the library was just a word. In my entire primary schooling period, I do not remember seeing any colourful storybooks. Text books were black and white with very few pictures on it. Sometimes, it was hard to recognise the pictures. Text books usually arrived about a month after the advent of the academic year. I was so motivated and eager to read that I used to finish almost all the books within a month. Our next door neighbour ‘Gaire Hajurbaa’ and my mother became my source of knowledge in those days. They told us many stories of gods and goddesses as well as ghosts. It was fun listening to their stories. They were animated while telling the story. I can now relate those experiences like watching thrilling movies.
Unfortunately, due to the recent development of technology, many families even in villages have access to television and mobile, the culture of storytelling is slowly disappearing. Although the literacy rate of Nepal is rapidly growing over the last two decades, the reading skills of primary students are still very low.The literacy rate of Nepal as per Census 2011 is 55.9 percent, which is 8.2 percent higher than the former Census 2001. The female literacy rate is lower than that of males (Male75.1 percent, Female 57.4 percent).
Researches by various organisations show that most of the school-going children (the second and third graders) aged between ages seven to nine cannot read a single word, even though they were counted as literate population during the census. According to a study, 34 percent of second graders and 19 percent of third graders (6-9 years old) could not read a single word in Nepali. Nepali students only display emergent reading skills by Grade Three, which would be expected by the end of Grade One or the beginning of Grade Two. Room to Read’s study in 2009 found that only 43 percent students in Grade Two could read all letters correctly.
There are numerous advantages of parents, grandparents or teachers reading to the children. For example, stories are universal, fun, easy to remember and more importantly, they are relational. Especially, in early grades, it is important that children listen. It helps them to be imaginative. Unfortunately, in our schools children are forced to copy from the book even though their motor skills are not even developed to hold the pencil. It is painful see these beautiful children with great potential spending hours doing boring thing all day long copying from the books.
Similarly, one of the punishments some teachers mete out to their students is reading the book. This punishment feeds perception to the students that you have to read a book if you are naughty. It does not positively motivate students to read books and understand the importance of reading. It is important for these teachers to understand that reading is not punishment, rather a joy and fun thing to do.
Parents need to read out loud to their children because it is a great way to build a strong bond between them. This is also a great way to cultivate a culture of reading in the next generation. I have been reading bedtime stories for my children aged ten and five since they were one year old. We have so much fun. The joy of spending few minutes during my busy schedule before putting them to bed is hard to express in words. Sometimes, we think that reading a book is a hard work and takes a lot of time. In fact, most children storybooks can be finished in less than 15 minutes. Most of the toddlers’ picture books take less than five minutes to finish. The issue is about our attitudes and discipline, not the time. If we are committed to invest in our children, we can make time. Once we start doing it, it eventually becomes a habit. It is not rocket science. It is simple and easy. You just need to start reading.
Teachers and parents often blame the children that they are not interested to read. In fact, they sometimes even claim that they cannot read. They often blame for children’s family background for not being able to read. For example, some say these children are from ‘dalit’ background, the parents are poor so that can’t read. The reality often is that these children are fully capable of reading and they love to read and listen to the stories. The challenge is that they do not have access to good storybooks in their mother tongue and there is no culture of reading or story telling at home as well as in many schools in Nepal.
I have been involved in setting up classroom libraries up to Grade Eight in Nepali schools in rural areas. When we bring the books in the classrooms, the smile on child face is encouraging. You cannot stop them reading when you provide them books in a language they are comfortable reading at their level. It is encouraging that there are more children books in Nepali languages and even some mother tongue available. Many rural schools now have functional libraries. The government, as well as NGOs and INGOs, has put a lot of investment for early grade reading programmes. However, there is a lot to be done to create a culture of reading at home and school.
Even the children from rich and educated family are not often motivated to read a book because parents are busy and they do not have time to read a book. The children are given expensive ipads and smartphones. They prefer playing with those gadgets rather than reading books. It is often the case that children do not read because parents do not read. Reading is infectious. If the children see their parents reading books, they are likely to inspire to read. Research shows that children who are not encouraged to read by their mother are three times more likely to say ‘reading is boring’ than those who are encouraged to read a lot, and children are twice as likely to read outside of class if they are encouraged to read by their mother or father a lot.
The reality is that children do like to read and are capable of reading if they are encouraged and provided a good environment. It is a myth that they do not read.
The writer is pursuing MPhil in Educational Leadership at School of Education, Kathmandu University.