“So, do you read?” I asked the annoying brat who lives in my building, and always needs to be kept in check for his antics. The child has probably been warned and reprimanded by nearly all the flat owners, and yet, he continues with his unruly behaviour. That is because at home he is the king and allowed to behave and do whatever he feels like.
“Yes, I read,” he said with great aplomb. “That’s wonderful,” I said trying my best to sound gleeful. “What do you read?” I continued. “My school books…my notes. I read them, ok.” he answered haughtily. “Aaaah, that’s groovy…absolutely fantastic! Go read some more!” I declared with sarcasm dripping through my pores while biting my tongue to keep from swearing.
And that my friends is the level of ‘reading’ most kids these days do. Today’s children’s lives don’t naturally have space for reading. They grow up with a continuous stream of entertainment – endless TV channels, digital devices and on-demand access. Research shows that for most children screen time is habitual. They are often over-stimulated by screens, rarely offline; some carry a device 24/7. Children flit from one form of entertainment to another and media meshing (using multiple devices simultaneously) is the norm.
Parents feel obligated to buy new technology to ensure their children ‘keep up’ and it seems money is no object, even in financially challenged homes. So, where children might have picked up a book, now screens fill their time. The result is that those moments where reading took root and flourished are diminishing.
The benefits of reading
Children need to recover the lost art of being still – having a still mind, quiet and reflective moments, time off-line, to allow sustained concentration on a story. In this busy screen dominated environment many children are simply not in the habit of reading, and find a book and long form text off putting. That includes reading on e-readers. Children’s e-reading has been much slower to take off than adults. We know many of Indian households now have a tablet or e-reader – yet they are used mainly for gaming, films and music, not reading.
Yet, parents do still value reading and over half say their child loves story time. Parents say they would like their children to read more, 53% wish they had more time for reading with their child and 28% feel guilty that they don’t read to them more. Clearly reading is still valued. Technological progress will continue and it offers us amazing opportunities, but how do we ensure it doesn’t fill every waking moment? How do we preserve the art of reading for pleasure? Do we even want to? I say a resounding yes, because reading for pleasure is the single biggest indicator of a child’s success academically, more than social background or parents’ education.
Children who read for pleasure have increased concentration, memory, confidence, greater self-esteem and general knowledge. Reading builds empathy, improves imagination and language development. These are important and relevant benefits, whether we live in a digital or analogue world.
At a story-reading workshop in a private school in the city recently, 11 and 12 year-olds were read a story. Then, during a discussion with the children, they were asked what books they read, who their favourite authors were and so on. The children sat in silence. After considerable prodding, one girl said her favourite story was a lesson from the English Reader. A couple of children seconded her choice. And that was it.
Isn’t it shocking and frightening to think that the extent of reading a whole class (some 80-90 kids) seems to have done is limited entirely to school textbooks? Especially at a time bookshops are flooded with imported and indigenous children’s books; many big publishing houses are doing books for children – some as an afterthought; and a handful, braving all odds, are publishing exclusively for children.
Why are children not reading?
So why are children not reading? At least this seems to be the general complaint. Yes, we have heard the arguments about the influence of television, computers, video games, and the high pressure life children are forced to tackle given tough syllabi and tougher learning environments… But what are we doing as parents, as teachers, as concerned individuals? Instead of talking about how most school libraries function or malfunction, let’s ask ourselves a few questions. What kind of books do school libraries have? Are children encouraged to use the library? Or is it treated as just another ‘period’ during which time they may access one or two shelves? Can they browse through the books, maybe flip through the pages of one, put it back, pull out another? How often do they, especially the younger ones, have storytelling sessions in the library? Do they ever get to meet the authors of books or illustrators? Over the years, does the child learn to love the library? Most important, can the child walk into the library any time during its working hours or is it off-bounds except during the designated period?
Coming back to reading, adults often complain children don’t read. The first question is: Do you read? If the answer is yes, do your children see you reading or do you wait until after they are in bed? Are books easily accessible to them? Basically, is there an ambience of books and reading in the house? Simply, are there books lying around within easy reach? Each child has his or her own level, like water. Given some time to themselves, some quiet, some mood, children can be encouraged to read. And once the bug bites, the child stays bitten.
That is why it is so important to instil in our kids a respect for and love of real paper and ink books. I love my Kindle app as much as the next mom, but I have to admit that I can’t resist checking texts when they pop up, even when I’m engrossed in a new novel. With a real book in my hands, I’m not going to get distracted by a pop-up notification of a comment on my latest Instagram story.
But how can we help our kids appreciate this ‘old school’ format of learning and growing? Like many things, it starts early. I still remember my mother’s exact cadence when she read me story books at bedtime. And I read to my own children the exact same way. Have fun reading to your little kids. Even if they don’t remember the stories, they’ll remember the warmth and safety of your lap and your attention.
As they get older and are learning to read, ask them to read to you. When you model for them what it feels like to have uninterrupted attention and free reign to learn and imagine, they will start to understand what it takes to do that on their own in later years. In their teen years, help your children bridge the gap between required reading and reading for pleasure. There are many writers who understand and embrace the tumultuous time that is teendom.
In our culture obsessed with measurable skill sets, book reading is overlooked and underappreciated. But we cannot forget that for thousands of years, people have gained knowledge and skill by hearing the stories of others and passing along their own. Technology is helping us to pass those stories along at an incredible rate, but let’s not forget the restorative beauty in shutting out all the outside noise, and diving fully into a story that has a little more depth than some Bollywood star’s latest Twitter rant.