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01.09.2013

Much Ado About Reading Lists. Happy Going Back to School Everybody!!!


I have read a moment ago that the obligatory reading list for the Polish language classes have been changed for both primary and middle school. The changes will be liked by some and criticized by others, normal thing. I don’t intend to argue here with anybody’s decisions. I would like to use the decision of the Polish Ministry of Education to think about reading in general, to think about reading as a process and how this process can be encouraged or discouraged.

Getting Into Reading

We are surrounded by text. There is always something to read, every step we take: labels on boxes, signs in the streets, headlines in newspapers, imprints on clothes and books which are the ultimate celebration of text. Text is omnipresent. Children are naturally curious, so I can imagine that when I was a child I couldn’t wait to start reading, to be like these adults around me who read.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember that but as children imitate adults, I assume that I wanted to read as well when I saw people around me reading. And I did see people reading around me – my brothers obsessed with Ludlum and Clancy, my dad re-reading Sienkiewicz’s ‘Trilogy’ for twentieth time, my mom reading contemporary Polish authors. My home was full of books and not only did they decorated shelves but also they were put into their use and were read. It was only natural for me, I think, that I wanted to read when everybody around me did it. I wanted to have access to this written on paper world. Now, of course I had somebody who taught me how to put letters together into words, then words into sentences. It was my mom who read to me. At the age of 5 I was quite an accomplished reader, and an avid one as well. It didn’t happen because I was extra smart. It happened because I have very good assistance and I was well motivated to do it.
I hear many people complain about their children not reading. They will say their children are lazy, that they choose TV reading, that they choose computers over books and so on. I am sick and tired of these adults who put the blame on children without reflecting for a while upon their own reading. Reading is a habit and children need to get into this habit early in their lives.  They will get into it through the positive assistance and encouragement from parents. As children imitate the significant adults around them, they will observe if books are read at home and by whom, and if they conclude from adults’ attitude that reading is a useless activity, they will probably not want to read. It’s then not enough to tell a kid that reading is good and send them off with a book. No! A kid has to see that an adult reads as well. If an adult says that reading is important and then I never see this adult doing what they say is of value, I will think what the adult says is important really isn’t because they don’t do it. So, before cursing children for not reading, I would encourage adults to check and see if somehow they don’t prefer a game of Angry Birds or a Facebook session over some time with a book.


Reading at School

I will reach to my experience at University to share few thoughts about reading at school. In my second year of studying at department of the English language, among other obligatory courses I had to take were the two in the British and American literature. The American literature one I will not forget. And I will remember it not because I enjoyed it so much. In the first lecture we were presented with a reading list – books that the knowledge of would be later checked in the exam. The list was scary to look at. It was so extensive!  I can’t remember how many books exactly we were supposed to read but the number was something crazy, I though. I didn’t understand how I was supposed to read all of these literary works and remember characters, plots, formulate opinions about problems presented in these books. As I was a good student I read what was required of me minus maybe two – ‘Moby Dick’ among them. I then went to a TEST, took the test, passed the test, and that was that. Yes, we did have separate classes in which we would discuss some of the books but these classes were very, very rare and didn’t satisfy me at all. It was too fast and too much, as the situation was with some other courses as well. There was no time to ponder, no time to immerse oneself and share this immersion with other students. It did happen, yes, to seldom for the university, though.
At schools but also universities we don’t read books – we tick them off the reading list. We present the knowledge of the content and we are rarely asked about our opinions. Reciting is preferred – parrot style. There is no time for discussion. Reading just for the sake of reading is not fun. It’s not fun just like other things are not fun when we do and we don’t know why we do them. And that’s what I believe also put off many learners from reading.

Why Should I Read It?

When at school, I rarely was told why I should read a book. I was told that it was obligatory. Not good an explanation for many, including myself. Everybody wants to know why they spend their time doing things. As a teacher in the kindergarten I have to create a positive atmosphere around a topic, I need to make my students want to learn and I need to tell them why what I am saying is worth listening. It’s not always easy but I need to remember that they need a reason to learn, to stay focused and interested. The same apply to any other student of any other subject. Some of the students will be naturally interested because they like a subjects, it’s their hobby or whatever. But there is the whole group of kids who want to know why they are supposed to read what they are supposed to read. A simple explanation that after having read this and that I will be able to this and that and it will be useful in life because of this and that or that after reading this and that I might discover or learn something about myself or other people. I was not told by any of my teachers that even my whole life can be changed through a medium of a book. There are greatly influential books out there, aren’t there? No, I was not told that. Instead I was waved with a reading list in from of my nose, a reading list I had to process in order to pass an exam. That itself isn’t a reading habit shaping incentive.

I am not an expert. These are just my loose thoughts and observations. I have been reading ever since I was five years old and I still take a great pleasure in it. I had been developing this skill for many years, though, and I had a great support from my relatives, friends to do so. I saw the habit of reading in action. It deeply saddens me when I hear lamenting of teachers or parents about their children not reading and not looking where they are with their habits and attitudes towards reading. And it’s not about what the Ministry of Education will put on or take off the obligatory reading list. It’s about how the habit of reading is approached, encouraged or discouraged by educators, institutions and homes.

An Alternative Approach

To finish on a lighter note - I know of a person who was bribed into reading.  There was a time in his life when he didn’t want to read no matter what support or incentive from adults around him. TV was his thing. The a deal was struck. No TV for a year in return for a substantial amount of money. It worked. Today the man watches stuff on TV, sure he does, but also he feverishly endeavours even the most demanding literature. The habit was successfully created.