We, as a society, place great value, and therefore great pressure, on children being able to read at an early age. We want them to read as early as they can. One could even say that a measuring stick for success in a child’s development is often how early they began to read. There are bragging rights for parents who have early readers, just the same way as when a child first learns to walk and talk. Yet as the child grows up there is less emphasis on reading and more on sports, extra-curricular and academic achievements in math and science.
Somewhere along the line of a child’s growth the meter stick of development shifts. And I began to wonder where the shift started and why it even started at all. It seems to me that the bragging rights that were once in place for reading, at six or seven, are not there anymore. Few children, over the age of eight, would have their parents boasting about how fast and thoroughly they had read books. Why is this so? I think it might be because parents assume that once their child knows how to read, they have virtually mastered the skill and have reached the pinnacle of the mountain we call reading.
As an English teacher, it is sometimes difficult for me to assess reading and grant a mark for it, and maybe, for the same reasons, parents find it hard to ‘grade’ their child on how well they read, except maybe in the quantity of books read or the sheer difficulty of the book. Math and science, sports and art are all far easier to judge and assess, and therefore constitutes an element of ‘showing-off’ a medal, or a math mark, a science or art project that their child did.
I would be hard pressed to find a parent who held up a book that their child had read or photocopied a page from a reader and put it on the fridge. However, maybe parents are right. Once a child has acquired the skill of reading, what is there left to achieve? Can one improve their reading skills and how does one assess the improvements in a concrete way? Are the generalizations about reading correct? I sincerely hope not, because if they are, then we would have children who give up reading because it is boring and have children whose sense of imagination is null and void.
If reading was simply a skill you acquired in primary school and serves little purpose in your development there afterwards, then the generalizations of children reading would be true. Yet I like to think that children enjoy reading to themselves and others, and that there is an intrinsic value to reading fiction and that storytelling is alive and well and that children are not addicted to their Gameboys and X-Boxes and that books hold much more wealth and richness than an MSN conversation on the Internet.
During Spring Break this past year I taught a reading course for a few students on the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. On the final day of the course I wrote a quote from the novel on the board and had the students look at it and analyze it. The quote is found on the first page on the book and it says, “If they give you lined paper, write the other way. ” The students analyzed it and then I asked them a series of questions, such as, “Who is ‘they’? ” and “Does this quote only apply to your writing habits?
“. We had a lot of fun with this quote until the students and I ran into a difficult question. I had asked, “What is the value of having books and not simply reading the text on the Internet? “. This was a hard one for them to answer, but when I suggested that we might as well get rid of hard copies and revert to online copies, there was a resounding, “No! “. There is something about the physical presence of a book that simply cannot be replaced by microchips and screen.
My students argued that there was something magical about a holding a book, turning its pages and being swept into the story. A computer screen and keyboard cannot possibly mimic that supernatural feeling. I wish I could have, at that moment, played for them an old movie favourite of mine called The Neverending Story, which was made in the mid eighties. It is a story about a boy who finds a mysterious and magical book and when he opens the book and begins to read it, he is pulled into the storyline and lives out the events of the plot.
That is what books do and I regret that a great many children and adults do not know it. As a final note I would like to come back to Travers’ quote, which proves to me that books are simply books; books should not limit, books should not embarrass, books should not be the source of bragging rights, but books should be available and inclusive and they should be read.
References: Zola, Meguido. Course Reader. Education 465-4. Children’s Literature. Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. Ballantine Books. 1996.