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The book dividend

The book dividend

Reading is the differentiator that children need in our 10+2+3+2 education system, designed for a world of work without artificial intelligence. The challenges to children reading books are many: assessments prioritising writing, overstuffed school timetables, and digital distractions.

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Last Updated : 25 June 2024, 00:03 IST
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Was there ever an era when adults didn’t lament, ‘children have stopped reading books’? Nostalgia is usually amnesia; there was never a golden age when all children read books. Mass literacy is a recent global phenomenon, and the motivation to read books is even more recent.

Reading is the differentiator that children need in our 10+2+3+2 education system, designed for a world of work without artificial intelligence. The challenges to children reading books are many: assessments prioritising writing, overstuffed school timetables, and digital distractions. Children start to resist reading anything beyond textbooks as early as Class 1 or 2, and then entirely by Class 3 or 4. But the case for reading books is strong, loud, and clear. 

Strong readers are stronger at writing, researching, speaking, and oracy (the ability to express oneself well). Reading delivers an unfair advantage and develops critical thinking across disciplines, connecting curiosity and creativity with learning. Strong readers have greater emotional wellbeing and develop the lifelong learning capacities that nurture imagination, empathy, and reflective thinking. Five interventions that can make books a habit:

First, our school timetable must make room. Our assessment framework and system can’t change quickly, but timetables in schools can think more holistically about the upsides of reading and find time.

The foundational years require twice as much reading as writing, and the primary years are equal. Delivering reading skills like decoding, oral fluency, comprehension, inferencing, and sense-making needs time in timetables to reach critical benchmarks that can be reached by Class 4 for school success and Class 8 for college success. This extra time must be in addition to integrating reading into the “curriculum.”

Second, teaching reading is not the job of the English teacher. Reading across subjects through articles, biographies, and books nurtures disciplinary and interdisciplinary passion.

Science teachers often take to showing videos, hoping to make their classes more engaging and getting kids to content they won’t read as easily.

Research shows that fourth through sixth class chidlren who read texts develop far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos, possibly due to diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.

Fiction and nonfiction children’s literature across sciences, math, the humanities, the arts, and sports has exploded globally, along with varied careers. Nothing motivates a child to read more than the book her favourite teacher recommends or even carries around. 

Third, children must read and be read to early. Children grow to become readers on the laps of their parents. Reading is best started early, but older kids can make the hard shift with parents role modeling.

Routines like reading hours, book holidays/ weekends, or dinner table conversations grow readers for life, building curiosity and enriching relationships. Readalouds and bedtime reading don’t stop in kindergarten; teenagers love them too.

All leaders are readers; some read a book a week; Elon Musk claims to read 100+ a year. Reading a book a month is easy, starting with simple routines like 15 pages a day or 30 minutes, whichever seems less daunting.

Fourth, reading must build communities. Schools, gated communities, and even individual classrooms must set up reading challenges or book clubs. Reading seems like a solitary habit but is profoundly social and needs conversations and community experiences with kindred souls to amplify the joy.

Fifth, philanthropy must fund reading spaces and reading resources and move public policy. Libraries and schools are the largest buyers of children’s books globally, backed by library associations that started and have grown over 50 to 100 years.

Countries like Japan have painstakingly built reading cultures with wonderful libraries like the Nakanoshima Children’s Book Forest, designed by architect Tadao Ando.

The New York Public Library services 42 smaller circulating libraries; anyone can become a member, and it’s free. Libraries, even paid ones, are hard to sustain; children’s reading spaces, children’s literature, and children’s books need patronage, and there are few better impacts for philanthropy than the social infrastructure of book accessibility.

India’s children’s literature market at around Rs 700 crore (around Rs 18 per school-age child) vs the leading market in the US at around Rs 20,000 crore (nearly Rs 4,000 per child) reflects the differential pathways to creativity and innovation.

Getting India to read needs imagination and new thinking. Children who read well have an ‘I can’ mentality for synthesising ideas from increasingly complex texts to learn, research, or stay abreast of information about the ever-changing world. Our parents’ 30-year careers are being replaced with 50-year careers for our children. Schools, parents, and society must collaborate to ensure books are their friends, accomplices, and teachers. 

(The writer is the founder of Neev Academy)

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