Let kids read what they want


This article on reading by Mark Bartholomew one of the founders of www.readlistenlearn.net was published in the new Indian magazine, Parents' World this month....


Parents World ArticleIt is a perennial complaint of teachers and parents that students never read, no matter whether they are at primary, secondary or tertiary levels of education. Some boast they have never opened a book except for those prescribed by their schools or colleges. The notion of reading for pleasure seems to have been drowned in the wave of social media as it sweeps everything that competes for our leisure time before it, leaving those of us who clutch to the printed page to be viewed with disdain by the app-wielding young.

Or so it may seem. However, this nostalgia for the days when Literature – with a capital L – was truly valued is based on a myth. An older generation of teachers complained of the terrifying impact of television on literacy rates. Before that, cinema was the culprit. Much as we might like to reminisce – all misty-eyed – about the euphoria the young experienced reading the canon in days of yore, it simply never happened more often then than it does today. In fact, arguably, the young spend more time reading (albeit much shorter texts and on screens rather than the page) than they used to in the years when the TV set reigned supreme.

Perhaps, then, the issue is not with the media but with the choice of reading matter that young people focus on today. Teachers value, one would hope, Sunil Gangopadhyay over Chetan Bhagat but, perhaps sadly, all the evidence suggests that, if we wish to improve young people’s reading skills, it is how much – and not what – they read that is pivotal. Stephen Krashen, the doyen of the field, in his ‘The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research’ (2 nd edition, 2006: Heinemann) has surveyed the literature and come up with some startling conclusions:

  • Let people read what they want to read.
  • If they wish to swap a book only half-read for another, don’t stop them.
  • Don’t ask them questions about the meaning of difficult vocabulary or syntax.
  • But do show an interest in their reading and ask their opinions about it.
  • And be a role model for reading by carrying a book around yourself.

Perhaps most importantly though is a precept that runs counter to everything we, as teachers, believe about reading and its benefits for greater language acquisition, whether mother tongue or a foreign one. Krashen famously argued that, when teaching a new language, we should understand what our students’ linguistic level was and concentrate on the next rung up the ladder. He called it i + 1. By contrast, with reading, we should be aiming at guiding students towards texts which are i - 1. In other words, let them read stories or articles or gaming reviews which are slightly below their level of linguistic competence. A general rule of thumb would be that if there are more than five words they don’t know on a page, then that text is probably too hard for them to enjoy. For the first few pages, they will assiduously consult their dictionaries each and every time they encounter a tricky item and then, a chapter or two later, they will put the book down never to pick it up again.

Now, none of this is to argue that in literature lessons we should abandon Dickens or Tagore, but that outside the classroom we should encourage (but not compel) our students to read whatever they want to. There is, after all, a wealth of evidence to suggest that students who initially devour horror stories with sentences no longer than ten words progress to more challenging works later. The trick is to get them reading in the first place, whether on the Net, a mobile phone or from a hard back. Insisting on the printed page reeks of fetishism!

GroupsBut how to get students reading outside the curriculum in the first place? The notion of reading circles is well-known: it involves students discussing the work they are currently reading with a small group of other students. It might involve some project work or a lit review or it may be even less formal. The point is that it offers extra-curricular reading some structure, in whichever form that might be.

A less familiar approach is Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) or Sustained Silent Reading, a concept practised in the States as early as November 1997. The idea is that a school assigns a period or two each week to silent reading and everyone – literally everyone from the Principal to the cleaning staff – stops what they are doing and reads. No appointments are scheduled, no phones are answered. Students are allowed to read whatever they choose except for a school textbook. It might be a pictorial work on dinosaurs or an article from The Economist. No matter. The important point is that everyone gets into the habit of reading without interruption for forty or so minutes.

Extensive reading is not going to work for everyone, but it may just get some started and spark an interest in a pursuit they had previously seen as tedious.

Mark Bartholomew is an education consultant to BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and has previously worked with University of Cambridge, British Council and Open University of Maharashtra. With Simon Dalton he is co-founder of www.readlistenlearn.net

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