The Purkal Youth Development Society is a school of 550 students, almost entirely from the most disadvantaged sections of society in Uttarakhand. However, if you spend 30 minutes talking to the students of the 11th and 12th classes you can’t help but wonder how the school has turned the damaged, frightened children who join the school into articulate and confident young men and women.
Their graduates could go and fit in anywhere in the world and they get into some highly competitive schools like the United World Colleges and, in turn, the universities in the United States that the Davies Scholarship programme will take them to. One of the main causes is, I think, that they have two libraries in the school staffed by people who know the books well and are excited by them. The primary school library is probably the most attractive library I have seen outside of the American or British Schools of the metros and there are people in and out of the school almost daily who are reading to, talking to and listening to the children. This is what is propelling the children at Purkal to heights that many far more expensive schools are aiming for.
Why the habit of reading is so valuable
I have visited some fancy schools in this country where they have to unlock the library to let me in and have a look around [warning sign: if they are locking the books up, say thank you and look for another school]. When a city or a country builds libraries everything improves; literacy increases, time spent in school increases, domestic violence decreases, ire-offending rates drop and wellbeing grows. If a city has more prisons than libraries you know that there is something wrong; just hope that the prisons have libraries inside, otherwise they are less likely to be effective at reforming and rehabilitating.
If you want your child to get ahead in life, to develop their own ideas and benefit from the collective knowledge of centuries then there is one unbreakable rule: you must help them to become readers; not simply people who can read, but people for whom reading is as much a part of their lives as breathing; the quality of their lives depends on it. Developing a habit of reading is not only going to open up for them whole new worlds of enquiry, joy, interest, love, culture and empathy, but also create thinkers who will be able to draw on more experience than their relatively short, bounded lives will give them.
If a city has more prisons than libraries you know that there is something wrong
No matter how intelligent a child might be [and you can blame some of that on genetics] they will never get to the point of coding the next machine, learning Artificial Intelligence [AI] or designing a new state-wide system for collecting recyclables from first principles; we all have to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have got us to where we are today and they have usually written things down.
The very act of reading is also something that our children need to engage in so as to develop competencies and attributes that will help them in school, work and life; the practice of sitting still and travelling somewhere in your head, the act of turning the written word into something that can consume you or persuade others and grow an idea into a movement. Reading as a silent, personal activity is one path that our children must be able to follow, as is reading aloud, the path on which they can be joined by or include others.
Where and how to begin
Like all of our children’s habits and learned behaviours, they take their lead from us, their parents. If they are to find a love of reading, they will need you to share your love of it with them. If you don’t have a love of reading, recognise that it is one of the most valuable things you can give your child, and all it requires is the desire and the effort to start something that is good for both of you as a part of your daily routine. Think of it as mental nourishment and hygiene, in the same way you think of them eating their meals, taking a bath and brushing their teeth.
As soon as your child is able to sit up in your lap and focus on something that you hold in front of them, you should be reading to them. When children are very young I really don’t think it matters what you read to them, so long as you are there with them, making contact physically, with the spoken word and, as they get older, with the ideas you are sharing.
Like all of our children’s habits and learned behaviours, they take their lead from us, their parents
Read to your child in any language
When I talk about reading I am not talking about reading in English. Reading in our mother tongue and acquiring that language is going to have the same developmental effect on your child. It will also allow you to choose the books you remember from childhood and allow grandparents to be involved in reading too. There is no point in reading to your child in a language you cannot comfortably read. Once they have gained fluency in a language—and in some homes this will be two languages—you can introduce another. To begin with you can read the lovely board-books that you can find on Amazon’s ‘up to two years’ pages or you could well read yesterday’s financial report from the newspaper. If you do it with love and enthusiasm, it will be equally stimulating.
Do make sure it is print you are reading though, and not text from a screen. It is an entirely different kind of stimulation that is likely to lead to something that you don’t intend or want for your child.
When you start reading to your baby it will be the sound of your voice and your presence that makes the experience so nice for them, then it will be the pictures and the feel of the books that you are looking at together while you read. Eventually they will be able to decode some of the symbols that you are looking at and reading to them, and soon enough they will be able to catch you out if you read the wrong words; now they are starting to learn and remember the words, the first part of learning to read. It will be some years before they sit down with a book themselves and read it, so you are still their guide. Even when they do enjoy reading themselves, they will love being read to even more because by then having time with you will have become scarce, and it is back to the reassurance of the sound of your voice and you being next to them that they need.
Of course, this is never going to happen if you yourself don’t read or are not seen reading by your child. This is called modelling and children are remarkable at learning through modelling. They will learn your best and your worst behaviours, which you should try to recognize as feedback rather than something to get cross about.
“But who has the time to read?”
Sometimes parents get out of the habit of reading. I know that I read far more in the school holidays than I do during the term because other things get in the way. Reading is like exercise and I know from experience that other things get in the way of that too when I let them. I also know that I feel great when I am able to exercise regularly and what I have to do is make time for it; it is the same for reading. If our children see us sitting quietly, reading, then we will help them develop their capacity to sit quietly and learn to be happy, be alone with themselves, be at peace without being bored or needing to be entertained, played with or attached to a device. Developing a habit of reading also develops a habit of contentment.
Make the time, have books in the places that you sit to relax, have them in the bathroom, keep a fresh pile of books on the coffee table, not coffee table books, actual books. Homes that are devoid of books are too often devoid of the other things that books bring, and if you want to buy something for your child that will add value to them as people you should be reaching for a book. When you read something that resonates, makes an important point or you think makes a good teachable moment for your child then take the trouble to share it and read it to them. Sharing here still means reading to them. Giving them something to read might work but asking them to ‘listen to this . . .’ is going to continue to help them in learning how to read. You can do this no matter how old they are.
Developing a habit of reading also develops a habit of contentment
Parents should read to their children all the way through primary and into secondary school. Many parents stop reading to their children as soon as they are able to make the transition from reading out loud to reading to themselves. It’s too soon. You cannot be sure of what they are silently reading to themselves and they still have a great deal to learn from you. I certainly think that we should be reading out loud to our children into their young teens. It doesn’t need to be from the stories and novels that you read to them at bedtime in the past; now there is the world of classic fiction, op-ed pieces in the press and those LinkedIn, Aeon and HBS articles that have a key idea from which they can learn.
From the regular experience I have of listening to boys reading out loud when I step into classrooms or conduct them, you know that you have done your job and helped them become readers and thinkers. If you feel that your own reading is not as fluent as you would like your child’s to be, or that you are unable to do what it takes to make Ruskin Bond or Harry Potter come alive by acting out the characters’ voices [my theatrical wife was always so much better at this than me] then there are many good recordings of actors and authors reading their works. Listen to Robert Munsch reading The PaperBag Princess on YouTube, Vimeo and Spotify from the Children’s Audio Books playlist, to hear how it’s done. This is wonderful storytelling training for parents and it allows children to hear just how things ought to sound. Reading along with the book becomes another experience altogether.
Applications like YouTube and Spotify allow you to choose just what you want, but there are many good spoken word radio shows and podcasts that also gives the opportunity to hear language being spoken and used well. If you have friends or relatives who are not readers and you worry that their children might be disadvantaged or if you are involved in the education of children whose parents are not readers, then there are things that you can do to help. There are online and mail order book clubs for readers of all ages available in India.
Every city will have its book clubs, reader’s and writer’s clubs, literary festivals and book fairs. If you have access to a smartphone ,you can find an activity every month that you can do with your child, based on books. Publishers like Scholastic, that work around the world in both primary and secondary education sectors, establish book clubs with various schools, set up book fairs and have parent sections on their websites through which they share their age-appropriate reading material. There are also libraries, school-guided reading programmes, book lists and blogs to guide, advise and inform you about what’s out there to read. While many Indian kids I meet start with Enid Blyton and the Hardy Boys [an indication of what their school libraries and parents have on the shelves] there is much better and more relevant children’s literature available today. If you are not a reader but have got to this point in the article, well done; keep going and keep talking to your child about what they enjoy reading and what book they think you might enjoy next [apparently I need to read Norwegian Wood by Murakami].
If they don’t take to it right away then don’t give up, all children go through phases and that’s as true with reading as it is with friends, playthings and tastes. Be careful not to make reading a source of conflict—that would undo all the good work!
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