By JOHN DORAISAMY
MANY reasons could be advanced by a teacher if a student were to pose the question, Please teacher, why should I read? Reading is a good or wholesome pastime. An old proverb says that the idle man’s brain is the devil’s workshop. Reading keeps the mind fully occupied. It is, I daresay, far better to be “hooked’ on reading books, newspapers, magazines or comics rather than be drawn to narcotics.
Over the years, teachers have urged their students to read widely. That is the ideal way of developing confidence in language usage. Grammar is also mastered with relative ease through sheer familiarity. In Malaysia, it is openly acknowledged that general reading is not yet widespread. In buses, trains and aircraft, people seem to prefer to chat with a fellow traveller or just sit and stare in front of them.
In England, to take a random example, people read as they travel to and from work or to the shops. Over a period of time, the individual becomes a citizen of a well-informed community. The mastery of reading by children requires cooperation between home and school. There must be a variety of print materials in the home. The more young children see parents and elders reading, the greater the probability that they will also take to reading.
William James in his essay On A Certain Blindness In Human Beings relates the experience of a missionary in the depths of Africa. As he sat on the verandah of a bungalow reading a periodical, a crowd had gathered. They stood watching for a long time. Eventually one person approached the reader and quite reverentially, asked whether he could buy some of the “eye medicine” that the missionary was absorbing.
The illiterate ones, whether young or old, are unable to grasp the link between the human being and the printed page. Yet it is this mysterious activity that has to be promoted more vigorously by Malaysian teachers and parents. There is really no substitute for wide reading. Students will steadily obtain deeper insights into the use of tenses as well as increase their stock of vocabulary. It doesn’t matter what sorts of fiction or non-fiction a student is interested in.
Adolescent boys will take to detective and mystery stories, as well as to ghost stories and adventure and war settings. Girls may prefer romances and family chronicles. In the course of time, students may, of their own accord, try reading the classics or simplified versions of them. “Never put adult heads on adolescent shoulders” was the advice traditionally given to teacher trainees with regard to reading for secondary school students.
In 1975, a report entitled A Language For Life was published in Britain. It contains the findings and recommendations of a committee headed by Sir Alan Bullock. There are many useful observations and practical suggestions for all parents and language teachers.
The Bullock Report declares that the best way to prepare the very young child for reading is to hold him on your lap and read aloud to him stories that he likes over and over again. The printed page, the physical comfort and security, the reassuring voice, and the fascination of the story itself all combine in the child’s mind to identify books as something which hold great pleasure. I quote from paragraph 7.6 of the report:
“Every time a parent reads aloud to a child, the child is learning that by some curious means the lines of print can be converted into stories which he can enjoy.”
In an earlier paragraph, the Bullock Report asserts that before the child arrives at school he should have learned to look upon books as a source of absorbing pleasure.
Apart from books and magazine articles, there are some unorthodox materials that teachers can bring to the classroom. Advertisements, labels and all kinds of announcements can be examined. Malaysia has always been noted for the colourful language on its signboards. Even if much of it is bad English, it is worth analysing it critically.
An activity suitable for the upper forms and related to the reading of books is book reporting. Book reviewing is a sophisticated skill and it is really not suitable for secondary school students. On the other hand, a book report is relatively simple. Students can be asked to note down, firstly, basic information about the book they have read: title, author, publisher and year or edition.
Next, the report could ask for two or three extracts – not exceeding 600 words each – from any chapter. A brief outline of the plot and the ending can also be included in the report. Finally, the reader should be asked which of the characters in the book he liked most, and why.
A pioneer headmaster of Victoria Institution, Richard Sidney, required students to keep a thick exercise book for copying into it extracts from a number of chapters from books that they had read.
A standard feature of classroom infrastructure is the bulletin board, as it is termed in some countries. This board can prove to be an effective means of encouraging reading and exciting the intellectual curiosity of students. Newspapers cuttings, relevant to students’ interests or class topics, visual displays, notices and selected book reviews, film reviews, book jackets and cartoons may stimulate many a reluctant or indifferent reader to want to use his latent reading skills in a purposeful manner.
It is important to replenish the bulletin board regularly. Students will not want to peruse items that have become “stale”. The language teacher must feel enthusiastic about the value of the bulletin board as a supplementary resource to text books and reference books. From time to time, the attention of students could be drawn to cuttings relating to particularly topical subjects, such as exciting developments in space, medical science, sports, entertainment and the environment.
Lastly, the school’s library resources and activities are directly relevant to the development of habits of wide reading among students and teachers.