Doing it the wrong way?

The basic theme of the entire morning so far, and what seems to be the burning question posed by and attempted on by so many people, is the question of how to foster a reading culture among the generation of today. Certainly there were many concerns raised by the general audience (and Yours Truly) about the decline in interest to read amongst children, pointing to various factors such as a proliferation and ease-of-access of digital media, television culture, and general ignorance in part of the parents.

I attended the presentation held by several teaching staff of Clementi Primary School aimed to showcase a slew of activities their school had committed to for the sake of instilling a reading culture in their students, and immediately noticed similarities between their conclusions and the observations made in Dr. Chitra’s keynote – children don’t read because they:

  1. Are too busy with schoolwork
  2. Are distracted by social media
  3. Had no early exposure because parents did not realize its importance.

The activities they had implemented and presented ranged from ‘reading performances’ by teachers (including a hilarious rendition of Billy Goat by one teacher on video), half-hour reading periods carved into lesson blocks, movie screenings and a mobile library system, where select books are brought to the school canteen for children to peruse and borrow. They also talked about a programme dubbed C.S.I. (Clementi Storytelling Idol) where – as its title speaks for itself – students compete in storytelling for fame and glory(?).

Something worthy of mention, however, is how the result of all this effort, done through pre and post surveys, showed almost no discernible improvement in the children’s attitudes on reading. While the reading programme had undoubtedly been a catalyst for some children to foster an interest in reading, the ones who had selected “not important” when quizzed on what they felt was reading’s level of importance actually remained the same, even increasing a little in percentage. Their reasons for saying so remain the same, that they were “overburdened with other commitments”, and that the choices of books were boring and did not interest them.

This, I felt, gave me a clue as to what the root of the problem was.

The problem, I feel, and have always sort of known deep down, is that the act of reading is becoming too institutionalized in the way it is being encouraged to children, and the fatal error here is equating the act of reading to schools, or schoolwork. A habit of reading has to be encouraged by adults, sure, but other than that the process of fostering a habit has to be organic. Some ideas that the teachers of Clementi Primary School had implemented were excellent ones, especially the mobile library that enabled subtle interaction between teacher and child by the books the teachers select for them. By having books conveniently located wherever children are located, there will undoubtedly be a gradual but natural gravitation towards the former. Others, I felt, like the C.S.I. and reading activity periods during curriculum, were not as good, as it did not allow an autonomy amongst the children to choose the stories they wanted to peruse. This undoubtedly led to the comments that the “books were boring”.

The second mis-assumption that I feel plagues an otherwise positive mindset is the firm belief that the only path to lifelong literacy and a habit of reading is through, well, books. As time and experience has taught me, an interest in reading does not necessarily arise through simply books. This is the case for my generation, and no doubt the modern generation of youth too.

One medium I want to talk about is the Graphic Novel. This topic is covered by several speakers over the course of the AFCC, and I feel should be held in equally high esteem and importance as the Novel. For me personally, I grew up with as much penchance for Tin-tin and Slam Dunk manga as I had with Enid Blyton and Redwall. With these childhood heroes I eventually moved on to stuff by Tolkien and Douglas Adams, and so on. However, I’m far from an isolated example. A friend of mine, whom I will dub ‘John’, was a more inspiring example. He is Taiwanese by birth, and moved to Singapore at the age of 9 with little to no knowledge of the English Language. One thing he enjoyed alot, however, were manga comic books. When I first met him in Secondary school, we could hardly communicate. His love for manga, however, transcended boundaries, and we soon became very close friends, and would exchange series of different comic titles with each other. As mine were all in English, and as my poor grasp of my own mother tongue forced him to converse in English with me, his English improved to the point that he scored a B for English in the O levels. He is now pursuing a major in Chinese Literature, but minoring in English Literature, a tremendous feat for anyone. All because of some comic books.

Another medium I feel is not explored at all is the medium of video games. These have always been relegated as leisure priorities by parents, and children have ‘suffered’ as a result. I want to talk about games, however, that put narrative focus ahead of gameplay mechanics – an increasing phenomenon that is spreading in the gaming industry. When I was a child, I learnt of the concept of post-modern narratives by playing Metal Gear Solid 3 on the Playstation, likewise my first epic narrative experience was not with a novel, nor a comic book, but with Final Fantasy 7. Modern games such as Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain and Bioware’s Mass Effect series place great emphasis on narrative experience, and require careful reading and consideration instead of mindless button mashing. Giving a child his first, say, Final Fantasy 7 moment, might yield surprising results for his long term involvement in reading.

Either way, subtlety is key. Allowing a child to engage in his/her own personal discovery, and autonomously discover new avenues of learning, seems to be the new approach in unlocking a child’s inner potential in this modern day. We have a lot of ground to cover till then.

Again, I do not, in any way, discredit any of the hard work and effort the speakers and educators put in for the sake of a better future for our young ones. The above are merely the opinions of this writer.

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