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Reading is an unnatural act. Scholar, teacher and reading warrior Dr Maryanne Wolf explains the complex process humans have evolved for the neuronal connections needed for decoding sounds, symbols, and constructing words and sentences, suggesting that 'we were never born to read'.
Last Updated : 07 October 2023, 22:55 IST

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India ranks third in country rankings of books published but not even 20th in reading population. Why? Cultivating the habit of reading has always been challenging, but the incoming tsunami of machine learning and artificial intelligence makes it more critical than ever before. Three things sabotage the reading habit of children: an archaic assessment structure, digital distraction and a lack of role models. However, there are a few tried and tested ways to build a reading habit early — more reading challenges, more children’s literary fests and more reading in general!

The last NLF Report on Children’s Literature in India (2022) suggests that Indian publishing is 96% textbooks and educational publishing. (see box). Half of this small literature segment is in English, and half in other languages. Children’s literature is negligible; the 6-16 school-going population of 270 million spends just Rs 25 per child annually. Other studies suggest that 33% of Indians have never read a book versus 2% globally. China has appeared from nowhere to almost equal the US in Kidlit, a strategic, if autocratically driven, virtuous cycle of literacy, research and innovation. There are many Indian children who can’t read and won’t read until they can, but there are also many who either just don’t read or read repetitive, formulaic titles chosen by nostalgia-seeking adults. Our growing literacy is encouraging, but reading needs more.

Loathing instead of learning

Over-examining learning leaves children loathing instead of loving learning and leaves stressed-out learners and parents (evocatively described recently as PESD or Post Examination Stress Disorder). Global PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) research suggests that students who read diversely score better. Exposing children to different cultures and perspectives helps them better understand the world around them while reading books affirming views of Indian identity helps nurture their own. Research shows that reading books combats social exclusion, assists mental health by increasing a person’s ability to empathise, increases self-awareness and personal insight, and alleviates depression symptoms. Our school experience confirms this: post-Covid, readers are more comfortable being themselves and reflective, while non-readers get trapped in an increasingly peer-oriented, social-media-led culture.

‘We were never born to read’

Reading is an unnatural act. Scholar, teacher and reading warrior Dr Maryanne Wolf explains the complex process humans have evolved for the neuronal connections needed for decoding sounds, symbols, and constructing words and sentences, suggesting that “we were never born to read”. The complex reading process requires individual tuning in each human brain and an almost individualised education plan for every young child. Research backs the 'first 1000-day focus' with infants and toddlers, promoted by the United Nations, through exposure to a rich linguistic reservoir before and after birth and through age two, leading to the beginning of deep synapse connections for developing reading perception.

Wolf also advocates a second 1000-day focus for preschoolers, with assessments for reading, followed by individualised interventions for developing reading skills, as a critical stage for later sense-making through continuously expanding complex reading in school and college. This structure is now prescribed by NEP 2020, with its aggressive foundational literacy goals. 

‘Cognitive lollipops’

Curiously, children today ‘read’ more than past ones ever did. This reading, however, happens in chopblocks of words and broken phrases that hit them constantly, averaging 34GB of data daily. The digital world children inhabit has trained them to move away from long reads which need decoding and patience. Digital access is only possible through reading, but in forms that Wolf calls “cognitive lollipops”. Short phrases and calls to action that don’t need much thought but result in quick rewards, sending ‘readers’ looking for more. Because of this continuous access to digital information, today’s readers have changed. A “bi-literate reading brain” capable of deeper, more sustained reading across any medium (text, screens, films, etc.) needs systematic work and curation to ensure the skimming, browsing, and word-spotting way of reading doesn’t limit cognitive development. Reading early and well fosters critical thinking skills, analytical, and problem-solving abilities but policy change is slow so we need civil society solutions.

Way forward

Reading challenges are essential to provide structure, reduce discovery costs, and make reading cool. This year’s NLF reading challenge, for instance, saw 605 teams participating from towns like Balia, Gorakhpur, Puducherry, Palakkad, Madarapakkam and Tiruchingode, along with Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai. The challenge begins in the summer with 30 curated books, read over three months. Reading is a social habit, and teams come together, building commitment to the intense reading and many rounds of competitive quizzes, ending in a physical tournament to win a trophy. Whether children read 5, 10 or 30 books or make it to the final level matters less than how the reading challenge shines a light on the importance of reading. Equating such challenges with olympiads and other competitions India loves will go a long way in getting kids to grow as readers. 

No less crucial are litfests, which bring together a community of parents, educators, book creators and readers.  A well-thought-of lit fest creates a space for ideas to bloom with experts from different domains: writers, publishers, storytellers, educators, psychologists, counsellors, film-makers, marketers, and more, conversing about the issues that matter in the world of children today, the imperatives that govern their lives, how stories mirror these or don’t, the stories that are told and those that lie dormant, waiting to be told.

Where are the role models?

Building a lifelong reading habit needs role modelling. Kids read less than their parents’ generation because they live in a world where Google knows everything and adults read less. Reading requires patience, perseverance and serenity. Start early with reading aloud, role model quiet reading, create front-and-centre space for physical books, encourage diverse reading, build shared routines, and foster a community around reading. Readers grow up on the laps of parents. Reading evangelist Prof Rudine Sims Bishop suggests that the best children’s books are ‘Mirrors, Windows, and (sliding glass) Doors’. Complement global literature with good Indian stories; when children cannot find themselves in the books they read or see images distorted or negative, they learn powerful lessons on how they are valued in society. 

The adage “the chains of habit are too weak to be felt till they are too strong to be broken” was for bad habits. Schools, parents, and policymakers have to work together to create the habit of reading in our children that is so strong that it doesn’t break in their lifetimes. The question is, will they?

The author is the Head of School, Neev Academy, and co-founder of the Neev Literature Festival. 

Note: The headline is a quote by Dr Seuss. (Theodor Seuss Geisel was an American children’s author and cartoonist. He has written and illustrated 60 books under the pen name Dr Seuss.)

Published 07 October 2023, 22:55 IST

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