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The Need to Read

May, 2018
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During any trip on the metro in Shanghai, and probably any major city on Earth, one cannot help but notice the number of faces buried in screens. One also can’t help but be quizzical as to how an eerie silence can fill a carriage full of scores of people. It is well known and understood that we live in the digital age and that in order to survive we simply must adapt. It seems though that we talk less and read less. This worries me in relation to our younger generation – especially as a father of two, often viewed by my children’s peers as ‘The one who won’t let me use my phone’ when they come to visit for sleepovers.

98187039As an educator and Head of an English department, I worry that the art of reading is in danger of disappearing, perhaps even becoming extinct unless we as teachers and parents make positive and impacting decisions for our children that really benefit their development as academics and as people. Adapting to the idea of reading for pleasure is certainly a step in the right direction.

Numerous studies by the Department for Education and a host of universities across the globe highlight the benefits of reading for pleasure.

Let’s first differentiate between reading for pleasure and academic reading. Reading for pleasure is involving oneself in texts which you enjoy and have a personal interest in, at a time of your pleasing. This is as opposed to reading the class novel in order ‘…to discuss how the author achieves the effect of…’ and numerous other exam style, academic tasks. To me, reading for pleasure is where you find yourself involved and immersed in a plot so much that before you know it – you are 100 pages further in and the day is half done. There is no purpose to reading for pleasure other than to enjoy the text and the experience it offers. Therefore, as a parent trying to encourage a child to read at home, let’s not force-feed Dickens and encyclopedias of chemistry upon our young learners (I have seen it happen), rather, work hard to provide them with access to texts which interest them and establish a love and enjoyment of reading. The academic aspect of reading should be provided by a healthy school curriculum – and the children will choose their own pathways, with the canon of classics potentially being one of them, but let that be the child’s choice over time. Besides, what is to be gained from destroying a child’s potential love of reading because you think they might suit reading Mansfield Park or anything by Chaucer at the age of 9? Again, I have seen it happen.

Now before any concerned parents attack the idea of reading for pleasure not providing an academic purpose, nor it possibly allowing their son or daughter to show progress in the classroom, let’s discuss the following findings…

Reading for pleasure enhances connections in the brain and strengthens neural pathways. Research led by neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns has shown that reading fiction improves cognitive function, connectivity and the ability to be compassionate. When you read for pleasure you develop the skill of concentration, your access to a wider range of vocabulary increases and a reader develops imagination and the knowledge of empathy. A keen reader tends to be a more relaxed and calm person with social and emotional characteristics more advanced than those who do not read. Now consider these characteristics and apply them to your sons and daughters. The result is a well-rounded and mature individual with access to key life-skills and academic potential. Not bad, huh?

So how can we promote the idea of reading for leisure among our children? Admittedly, as the metro ride suggests, we have a battle to fight. The answer can partially come from technology, although I find that the danger of focusing on online reading can be a potential distraction from other online sources and communities. Besides, frightening statistics show that the average teenager spends 2.5 hours a week reading books, compared to 9 hours a week in front of a computer/ phone/ tablet screen, and 11.5 hours in front of a television. So before you buy a book online and place that all-too-familiar glow once again in the face of your child, consider the following: there have been no studies done, anywhere, which prove that reading from screens provides any benefit over the traditional, physical book in your hand approach. Therefore, other options should be considered.

·       Develop a library of texts at home containing newspapers, magazines, your favourite books from your childhood and experience. Share them and discuss them as a family and communicate your enjoyment of them, talk to each other. Talking - remember that?

·       Take trips to the bookshops and buy physical copies of texts. Combine it with lunch or some sightseeing and connect even the buying of books to some positive experiences with your children.

·       Allow your child the freedom of choice. If they enjoy super hero movies, buy them the super hero encyclopaedia. If your child is an avid skateboarder, buy them a biography on Tony Hawk. You are not giving in to them, but rather managing them in a caring and appreciative fashion.

·       Reward your child for reading. Reward linked to desired behaviour has been found to ‘…increase motivation to carry out that behaviour’ (Clark and Rumbold, 2006).

james-moan1Perhaps the key is simply to be an involved parent. Evidence can prove that parental involvement in a child’s literacy “…has been reported as a more powerful variable that other family background variables…” (Flouri and Buchanan, 2004), but as a parent who fights hard to win the battles against television and technology, the time I have spent reading and all that comes with it with my two children doesn’t need a fact or statistic. I just look at their faces and feel how I feel. We don’t use phones on the metro. We read instead.

 

 

 

By James Moan,

Head of English, Harrow International School Shanghai

 

 

 

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