Dangerous consequences of dying reading habit

Decades ago, when I studied educational theory abroad, one of the many startling things I learnt was the presence of reading in the daily time table of schools from the beginning. The slot allotted was not labeled as English or Language; it was simply called Reading.

In India, the subject to which we devote a daily period is described as English. Similarly, there is a period for a subject titled Hindi or its substitute. What happens in the period devoted to these subjects? The teacher teaches the textbook. All four domains of language learning — speaking, listening, reading and writing — must find their space within the main focus on textbooks. No special emphasis is placed on reading. The curriculum may state that the objective of language teaching is to develop students’ capacity for speech, listening, reading and writing; what drives the teacher is urgency to complete the textbook, ensuring that children get good marks in their weekly and other tests successfully.

When it comes to cultivating the habit of reading for pleasure, the vast difference between government and private schools disappears. It is not difficult to guess why. Reading is just not recognised as an area of the curriculum in its own right. To succeed as a student in the Indian system, all you need to read well is the textbook. And the purpose of textbook reading is to do well in examinations, so such reading should be called studying for exam. Supplementary readings are prescribed, but they too are examinations-oriented.

What about the library? Nearly all secondary schools are mandated to house libraries. Timetables of most schools display a library period. But even if it is used to bring children to library premises, one period is hardly sufficient time to relax and get lost in a good book. The library is also meant to lend books for home reading. But this facility is rarely availed by children to borrow fiction and other genres of literature to read at home. Children are given so much daily homework that it’s difficult to imagine a child finding time to read lengthy novels at home. Apart from homework, there are tests and exams to prepare for.

I know of a few private schools which have tried to promote the reading habit. One major obstacle they faced was the paucity of literature for primary school children. Most policies for secondary school also disfavour fiction — the priority genre for promoting reading for pleasure among adolescents. At the primary level, teachers have no clue what books to buy and where to find them. Booksellers stocking good quality literature for the younger age group are rare even in Delhi. A few NGOs are currently publishing good quality children’s books in Indian languages, but these languages are generally of no interest to private schools. Neither private school principals nor teachers seem to be aware that bilingualism and reading enjoyment, far from being mutually opposed, go together.

Now proponents of developing the reading habit in children are confronted with a new, formidable challenge. In her recently published book, Reader, Come Home (Harper Collins, 2018), Dr. Maryanne Wolf, professor of citizenship and public service at Tufts University (USA), discusses the emergency situation confronting the ‘reading brain’. Dr. Wolf is a cognitive scientist who has devoted several years to conducting neurological studies to decipher the processes involved in reading. These processes, she says, can be wiped out within a generation unless digital reading is balanced with reading hard copy books. The main message of the considerable body of neuroscientific evidence now available is that the two types of reading are not comparable. Capabilities of reflection, analogical understanding, critical inquiry and empathy are developed by reading deeply. Digital reading, especially if introduced in early childhood, encourages skimming while discouraging reflective interaction with the text. Prof. Wolf recommends bi-literacy wherein digital literacy can be imparted alongside serious old-style reading.

This is hardly an extraordinary message, but it may take years to reach Indian schools and governments. Guided by the belief that leapfrogging is the only way to catch up, our policy makers and school leaders imitate whatever they think is currently popular in the Western world. Meanwhile, the latter moves on to improving its practices. The time lag between ‘them’ and ‘us’ doesn’t shrink; it ensures that we will keep providing a market for outdated goods in all fields, including medicine and education.

If we were to reform our educational practices by looking objectively at local conditions and gaps, reading should receive the highest priority. Its pedagogy must experience radical change, with focus on enabling children to make sense rather than focus on decoding and mindlessly verbalising printed texts. Simultaneously, there should be strong focus on developing the habit of reading for pleasure. This requires breaking the stranglehold of prescribed textbooks and letting children read freely and widely. To make this possible, school libraries must receive the highest priority, in terms of funds, staff, and space.

(Dr. Krishna Kumar is former director of NCERT and former professor of education at Delhi University)

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