Today is International Literacy Day, and also Tolstoy’s birthday (he’s the old guy that is popping up on your google browser home page). I first “met” Tolstoy when I was in matric. He helped me through my final exams by giving me a parallel universe to escape to, filled with people and events that I was not at all responsible for. What a relief!
People read for all sorts of reasons. Fun, relaxation and finding out new things rate as some of the more positive experiences. Reading for pleasure means you get to choose what you are reading because you are interested in it. You also get to choose where and when you read it. No one is making you. Some say reading is a form of play but I like what Pullman (2004) has to say: “Consider the nature of what happens when we read a book… It isn’t like a lecture: it’s like a conversation. There’s a back and forthness about it. The book proposes, the reader questions, the book responds, the reader considers. And we are active about the process… We can skim or we can read it slowly; we can read every word, or we can skip long passages, we can read it in the order it presents itself, or we can read it in any order we please, we can look at the last page first, or decide to wait for it, we can put the book down and… we can assent or we can disagree.”
Of course, books don’t necessarily look like they did when I was in matric. The paper ones are still around but most now have an online counterpart. The web has given us access to a whole new range of written information as well as new forms of communication. I used to write letters to my friends and post them at the post office… with stamps… and they wrote back. It took the whole week for our thoughts to pass from one to the other and back again. The WHOLE WEEK!
Regardless of where we get our literature from or even regardless of what form it takes, what we do know is that people who read for pleasure gain many academic and social benefits over those who do not read for pleasure. UK research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2002) shows that reading enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status. Put into other words, poverty does not mean you can’t succeed, if only you will read!
What happens when you read? When you read, you get better at reading! This makes you want to read more and you get better and you read more and you …get the picture. Writing ability, grammar, comprehension and vocabulary skills build making you more able to engage with written text. As you become more confident and successful, you experience intrinsic rewards (or inner happiness), at knowing you are doing something you are good at. There is also evidence that reading builds your general knowledge, your understanding of other cultures, your willingness to participate in your community and your understanding of human nature. Reading can promote social skills and has been shown to combat feelings of loneliness.
So what is it with teenagers and reading? No, it is not just your child (or mine) who hasn’t touched a book for non-school reasons in over a year. Teenagers just don’t love reading as much as the rest of the world does. It could have to do with the amount of unpleasant (school based) reading they are forced to do, changing their relationship with reading into something to be endured rather than something that is pleasurable. Fortunately, research shows us that if they read for pleasure when they were younger, they will likely come back to it as adults.
How can parents be sure that they’ve instilled a love for reading? The home environment is key. If your home is a place where reading is loved, valued, modelled and honoured then your kids will grow up with this as a value. Your involvement in your child’s literacy experiences is more important than how educated you are as a parent, how many other kids you have or how much money you have. Children who know adults who read for pleasure take it for granted that reading is a valuable and worthwhile activity. You can create a bookworm family by:
1. Having lots of books (and other printed materials) around. Encourage your children to interact with environmental print (road signs, cereal boxes etc) and visit the library. Talk about what you are reading and how reading makes you feel.
2. Having lots of discussions. After all words are the basis of books. Talk, debate, question, tell stories to each other. Well after your child grows beyond your ability to help with homework, they will still want to tell you what they are doing at school. The older they get the more able they are to discuss what is happening in your community and nationally.
3. Having lots of knowledge resources. Media, TV, computers are all resources for learning about the world. Develop outdoors curiosity by asking questions things you see and interacting with people. Head for educational venues that match your child’s interest. Encourage creative thinking and problem solving.
“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” — Anne Lamott