I arrived in India some years - no, I'll be honest - many years ago and set about finding good bookshops and, in comparison to where I'd been living for the previous five years, it was paradise. My only problem was that I was unable to decide which authors I should read because, outside the classics and Nobel Prize winners, I hadn't heard of any of them. Of course, I could not trust the reviews on the back covers of their novels as these were so biased. Luckily, I had a friend who was able to offer a few leads and I was soon on my way into the wonderful world of Indian literature.
Our students face the same challenge, especially if they haven't got the reading habit. They just don't know which books they're going to like. Their teacher might appear a bit like those reviews on the back covers of unfamiliar writers - unreliable! Bitter experience of dreary lessons trying to decipher Shakespeare at thirteen years old has taught them not to trust us.
One way around this is to follow the example set by many leading bookshops. Get students to write very short reviews of their best-loved stories, just as some bookshops do by asking their staff to pen a few words to stick on the shelves near where the books are arranged.
Many leading academics are opposed to tasks and tests being set on reading which is supposed to be for pleasure and, in general, I agree with them. Reading outside the curriculum should be an end in itself, a pleasure that is neither rewarded nor dictated, never assessed nor used actually (and more honestly) to teach grammar. But writing a few sentences to enable one's friends to judge whether they will like a book does not seem to fall into the same category as a set of multiple choice questions.
The activity can be varied too. The five best quotes from the book. A description of a character the reviewer liked or loathed. A paraphrase of the first few pages with a few questions about what might happen next.
All these serve a dual purpose: writing practice and a new resource for potential readers that can enhance a school library. We have done the same with Read Listen Learn, offering a 50-word synopsis of every story which the reader can click on to see whether the story is going to be one he or she wants to read.
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