Reading…What Is It To You?

In our country today, most people view things with the end in mind. “What will this achieve?” “How will this benefit me?” “What kind of result can I get out of this?” When it comes to education, the same set of values prevails. Everything is a means to an end. As parents, we often lose sight of the greater value in things when all we could think of is how they can translate to better grades for our kids.

Take reading, for instance. What does it mean to an average parent? What comes to your mind when I mention ‘reading’ to you? Here are some possibilities :

1. It is something the kids must learn to do, and preferably do it early, so that they can excel in school.

2. Kids must read a lot of books so that they can do well in their exams and write good compositions.

3. If the kid can’t read by the time he enters primary school, he is doomed.

5. Phonics is a very important component of preschool education because without it, the kids cannot learn to read.

6. I wish my kids can read on their own… a result, learn lots of useful things through books.

Which one of the above represents your thought on Reading?

It is sad when reading becomes a means to an end (ie. good academic results). As a person who loves reading, to me reading should be pleasurable. It should not be something we try to get our kids to do so just so they can start reading encyclopedia and textbooks, and learn to write great compositions to make fantastic grades in school. All that has their place. I am not saying that they are not important. I am not immune to the pressure of the academic rat race in Singapore. However, it really makes something that can be pleasurable and enjoyable totally functional, dumb and dull if all parents do are to send their kids to phonics class, followed by reading class, and buy them graded readers just to make sure they achieve the required level of literacy to survive in primary school.

Reading is not simply about, well, reading. It is not simply about knowledge acquisition. It is not about grades. Reading is so much more. It should be a pleasure to the child and pleasure to the parent who reads the books to the child. Reading is about imagination, pathos, nuances, emotions and values. A child can learn so much more from reading than factual knowledge. How many of us have read books we couldn’t put down. Yet, the way we approach reading is as if we expect our kids to use that skill to read textbooks or fact books that they can’t wait to put down.

This is the reason why I kind of hate graded readers. Graded readers are functional and dumbed down. They are one dimensional. They do not take the imagination to another world. They impart no other values except grammar rules and vocabulary. It takes the fun out of reading. This article sort of sums up my sentiments towards graded readers.

Now, I recognise that there is a place for graded readers, but in my opinion, it should only take a supplementary role and should not make up the main bulk of a child’s reading material. If a child is capable of picking up reading through authentic fiction, then graded readers should not be introduced. If the child enjoys reading graded readers, there is no harm reading them. However, I suspect most kids will not find graded readers fun to read once they are exposed and have access to good children literature

As parents, one of the things we strive to do to build up our children’s literacy skill is to read to them as often as possible. Trust me, you will find reading authentic fiction more enjoyable than reading graded readers. In my family, the official ‘read-er’ is my husband. He has been doing all the bedtime reading for years. By nature, he is not a reader. He falls asleep the moment he is presented with a printed page. Yet, after reading to the kids all these years – books selected by me, of course – even he can now discern what is a good children book and what is not. One of the criteria is this : if he does not enjoy reading the story (barring the matter of taste), most likely the children won’t enjoy the story. The best way to motivate a child to read is not to ensure he attains the skill to read quickly and early so that he could do independent reading. The best way to motivate a child to read is to read to the child good children literature and make reading an enjoyable thing to do.

So how to choose good children literature? Surfing through the internet, I realise that there are lots of advice out there. However, I find that some of them are rather ambiguous, like “as long as the child enjoys the story”, which I do not agree with because reading is a matter of taste too. Taste has to be cultivated. If the kid grows up reading comics, then he will enjoy reading comics and only comics. Similarly, if all your child is exposed to is graded readers, then she will be limited by what she is exposed to, which is dumbed down literature.

I did not learn this overnight. Even though I am an avid reader myself, because I was brought up Chinese-educated (reading classics in primary and secondary school blah blah blah ), I had very little exposure to English children books. My parents didn’t have the faintest idea what to buy and basically left me to my own devices. I grew up with the usual dose of Ladybird series and Enid Blyton. I only learned about authors like Dr Seuss and Eric Carle when I had my first kid. I had never heard of classics like ‘Goodnight Moon’ until then.

I started off with books in the Five in A Row lists and a few authors recommended by my friends. Because I love to read and basically can tell a good book from a bad one, after exposing myself to these books, I kind of got the hang of choosing children’s book. It is not very different from choosing adult books. As I said, even my non-reader husband could learn to discern a good book from a bad one through reading these book. Hence, I am sure anyone, if pointed in the right direction, can learn to pick good books for his kids.

The same principle applies to choosing Chinese books. Now, when it comes to picture books, the West is way ahead. It was only in recent years that we find similar quality Chinese children books in the market. I was told by a Mainlander that the reason is because Chinese, in the past, could not afford picture books. Printing picture books is expensive. Another Mainlander who worked in Singapore remarked to me that ordinary workers in China would not be able to afford the picture books I bought for my children even though when I convert the RMB, the price is really cheap to us. It was only when China took off economically, and the people became wealthier, as well as greater exposure to the value of picture books from the West, that children literature in the form of picture books (绘本) started gaining popularity. Hence, most of the time, the good ones are translation of Western children picture books, although I do see more and more that are produced by Chinese writers and illustrators.

So basically, what I am saying is this : reading is not merely a skill for acquiring knowledge for the sake of good grades. Reading should be enjoyable, and evoke and impart much more than mere facts and one-dimensional thinking. Children picture books are not just stories to be enjoyed but also artwork to be admired. This is the same for both English and Chinese. So go out there and start reading some good children books. You will not understand why I think Disney Princess story book is one-dimensional unless you go and pick up some good quality children book and read them for yourself. If you do not know where to start, how to find the good books, then do what I did when I didn’t know better. Use Five in a Row booklist as a guide. That will keep you going for a while. Look for books by well-known children books authors. All these are available in the library if your budget is limited. And after you have digested a good amount of good quality children story books and (hopefully) enjoy them for yourself, go back to your Peter and Jane or other graded readers and see whether you still think they are worth your limited shelf space at home.

Further Reading :

10 Great Authors in Children’s Literature

Award Winning Children Books