‘Teach the books, touch the heart’

‘Teach the books, touch the heart’

(With apologies to the New York Times, April 20, 2012)

‘This is not a (talk) about books. It’s a (talk) about people.’

(The Reading Promise, by Alice Ozma)

Pamela Neethling

Media Centre Hilton College

The following is a presentation which Pamela gave at the Hilton College English Conference on 18 May this year.

C. S. Lewis said, ‘We read to know that we are not alone.’

Lewis was absolutely not thinking about literacy in South Africa when he uttered that much-quoted line, but I have still found it comforting. We are not alone in South Africa, as we face the terrifying truth that many of our young people cannot read, or will not read, never mind read adequately enough to ‘meet the demands of (future) work and social networks’ (The Global Literacy Challenge, 2008).

Literacy is a global concern because it is ‘a survival tool in a fiercely competitive world’ (The Global Literacy Challenge, 2008).  We are nearing the end of UNESCO’s Literacy Decade that began in 2003. With its slogan, Literacy as Freedom, UNESCO’s aim has been to provide a framework for literacy in a world where it is estimated that one in five adults cannot read or write, at all.  Literacy is a basic human right, which is why the goals of UNESCO have been coupled with strategies such as the Education for All campaign and the Millennium Development Goals.

According to the United Nations Development Programme report, 2011, our literacy rate in South Africa is 88 per cent and we are 113 out of a possible 183 countries, ranked number 58 in the world. But in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, 2006, which compared ten-year-olds from 35 different countries, South Africa was bottom of the pile, despite the fact that the South African students tested were older, at 11.9 years, than the average, a concession made due to ‘the challenge of multiple native languages and the language of instruction’ (Mullis et al, 2007).

Illiteracy – or even low literacy – is an expensive problem. The World Literacy Foundation estimates that the world-wide lack of literacy skills costs the global economy US$1.19 trillion each year. Individual countries, both developing and developed, have explored the cost of literacy challenges within their borders and the figures are frightening: inadequate literacy or a lack of literacy is not only ruinously expensive for the individual but for the society within which that individual resides.

Most of what I have read around the topic of literacy pertains to basic literacy skills. The definition of literacy as a concept is also under review. In a 2005 UNESCO report, the following, much lengthier and more sophisticated description (UNESCO is adamant that this is not a definition) of literacy caught my attention:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, develop their knowledge and potential and participate fully in community and wider society.(UNESCO 2005:21)

This description is exciting but also divisive. How many young people and adults, currently considered literate in the more accepted sense of the word, would still be labelled literate based on this?

But the truth is if our students are to succeed in the twenty-first century world, we do need a broader, more enhancing vision of literacy. Recently I browsed through Future Work Skills 2020, published by the Institute for the Future, part of the University of Phoenix Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. Many of these sorts of reports and investigations are floating about at the moment and most of them, certainly the ones I have read, draw more or less the same sorts of conclusions about how we will work in the next few decades and what skills we will need in order to navigate these new worlds filled with new information. But what strikes me about the predictions these publications make is that they all require the same, basic skill.

Future Work Skills 2020 names concepts for the future work force such as Sense-making, Social Intelligence, Novel and Adaptive Thinking, Cross-cultural Competency, Computational Thinking, New-Media Literacy, Transdisiplinarity, Design Mind-set, Cognitive Load Management and Virtual Collaboration.  These are smart, exciting new labels designed to incorporate what is new and developing in our evolving world. But all of them, at their heart, have the ability to read – to predict, skim, scan, identify, infer, distinguish, evaluate, explain, interpret, motivate, analyse, respond, to consider socio-cultural and political values, attitudes and beliefs, and to evaluate how language may reflect and shape those values and attitudes. I am sure by now you are mouthing along with me as you recognise that I am quoting the key verbs from Learning Outcome 2, Reading and Viewing, in the IEB Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement. If our students are encouraged to read, not only for education, but for enrichment and enjoyment, of course they will (and I am quoting) be ‘able to express their identity, feelings and ideas, interact with others and manage their world’. Reading is not a future-anything skill – it is, it has and it always will be the single most important and life-enhancing ability we can offer our students anywhere in the world, at any time and in any environment.

Here is my concern, however, and it lies buried in the National CAPS document:

‘By the final phase of schooling, however, many of these activities [referring to reading] should need little emphasis: they have been part of the learner’s progress through preceding phases.’

This is where things could go horribly wrong. That assumption cannot be made. English teachers desperately need to engage with our students at every phase, urging them, motivating them and encouraging them to read for enjoyment by making reading accessible to them and by modelling the value and delight of reading through our own, personal reading habits. Reading will always need emphasis – teachers of senior phase students know that as well as teachers of foundation phase or primary phase. And often, for whatever reason, reading might not have been part of the learner’s progress through preceding phases.

In a Monitoring Learning Achievement surveyconducted in 25 145 South African schools in 1999, 22 101 schools had no space for a library, 3 388 had dedicated library spaces but not one book and only 1 817 schools had libraries with books. In other words, for the mathematically challenged of us, only 7 per cent of the schools surveyed had libraries.  A way around the absence of libraries is for teachers, especially in the primary phase, to have classroom collections for students to use – sadly, only 25 per cent of the schools offered this alternative.

Our government is very aware of the shockingly low literacy levels in this country and has devised a National Reading Strategy for South Africa; its vision reads: Every South African learner will be a fluent reader who reads to learn, and reads for enjoyment and enrichment. We must ensure that our students leave school as readers, preferably who read for pleasure, because the benefits of such an activity for the individual student and the society he or she will inhabit are almost immeasurable.  English teachers cannot assume that because a student can read, or has been a reader, he or she will continue to read without our support.

Believe it or not, as well as the heated debate around the words ‘literacy’, ‘illiteracy’, ‘low literacy’ and ‘adequate literacy’, there is academic debate around what we mean when we say ‘reading for pleasure’.  Other ways of putting this are ‘leisure reading’ (Greaney, 1980), ‘recreational reading’ (Manzo & Manzo, 1995), ‘voluntary reading’ (Krashen, 2004), ‘independent reading’ (Cullinan, 2000) and my personal favourite, ‘ludic reading’ (Nell, 1988) – I had to look up ‘ludic’: It means ‘spontaneous and playful’, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English!

Whatever we want to call it, reading for enjoyment is the reading we do of our own accord, because we want to. It can also refer to reading that we began at someone else’s behest, such as a teacher, but continued with because we became ‘hooked’ and wanted to carry on. Typically, reading for enjoyment will reflect our own choice of reading material – and this is a thorny area for English teachers because we need to allow choice (which has been proven to be a very important issue for teenage and senior primary readers) but within the confines of what we believe to be best for growing our readers.

Wanting our students to enjoy reading is not simply because we are passionate about the heart of our language, its literature, but because it has real, measurable benefits: in 2002 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development stated that ‘reading enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status’. And Krashen adds, ‘When children read for pleasure, when they get ‘hooked on books’, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called ‘language skills’ many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers. Although free voluntary reading alone will not ensure attainment of the highest levels of literacy, it will at least ensure an acceptable level. Without it, I suspect that children simply do not have a chance.’

But sadly, and this will not be a surprise, a lot of evidence is accumulating that a growing number of young people, especially between the ages of ten and fourteen, are not reading books for pleasure any more. They are reading – text messages, web pages and so on, but their choice of reading is veering away from fiction, and non-fiction has never really been a very popular genre for younger people anyway.  And teachers of boys will equally not be surprised to hear that boys tend to read less than girls and tend to enjoy it less, based on studies such as Clark and Foster’s in 2005.

As English teachers in well-resourced schools that doubtless have given much thought to our students’ reading,  we must continue to do everything we can to motivate reading and to encourage our students regardless of phase to embrace intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for reading.  Intrinsic motivation means that students read because they want to; thus they read more often and more widely; they enjoy it more; they retain more information and they are better able to persist with what they are reading. They see that reading is a valuable, important activity, they are curious to learn about a particular topic and they feel a sense of achievement at what they have mastered.

Extrinsic motivation to read means that students read because the activity is being imposed upon them, usually by their teachers. Extrinsic motivation is often linked to assessment or a task. Research (Deci et al, 1999, Wigfield and Guthrie, 1997) has discovered that extrinsically motivated students want their reading to be recognised, they want to receive a tangible reward; when reading for assessment, they want to earn good marks and they tend to read competitively – wanting to outperform other students.

Intrinsically motivated readers tend to have higher level thinking skills and to understand concepts better than students who read because they are forced to. But extrinsic motivation can be harnessed to bring about intrinsic motivation!

We must be able to answer the questions, ‘What should I read next?’ and most importantly, ‘What should I read?’ (Which usually in my experience, despite a collection of nearly 11 000 items in our library, follows the statement, ‘There is nothing to read.’) As busy, pressured English teachers trying to squeeze in reading for our own pleasure, never mind reading in order to motivate our students, sounds like an impossibly tall order. But there are ways of coping with the volume of new publications and authors that seem to come at us in a tsunami of texts. However we try to motivate our students to read for enjoyment, it is essential that they know we read for pleasure and that we share what we have read with them.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, also by C S Lewis, Lucy opens a magical book and we are told, ‘The longer she read the more wonderful and more real the pictures became …’.

Let’s cast a spell on our students… These are some suggestions of various ways to motivate our students to read (without trying to read every book that is published and managing to get 8 hours sleep a night). Modern life is certainly not all about Facebook and Twitter, but we need to accept that our students, especially our teenage students, are going to be using social networks and technology. This means we must try to meet them where they are and make their interests work for us. It is helpful if we can embrace some degree of technological savvy, without having to morph into Bill Gates…

  • Set up reading programmes

At St Anne’s College we run two reading programmes: the Young Critics Award programme in Form 4 (Grade Ten) and the Battle of the Bookworms programme in Form 2 (Grade Eight). Both programmes run over approximately 15 weeks, both programmes are run closely in conjunction with the English department and both programmes are assessment-linked as well are reward-linked, to a greater or lesser extent.

Thus both programmes offer extrinsic motivations in the hopes of igniting intrinsic motivation to read – and they include that all-important aspect of choice, within broad parameters (YCA offers a list of twenty books; BoB offers a booklet running to 25 pages). Reading programmes are a lot of work to set up, but the rewards are as magical as Lucy’s book.

  • Organise reading activities

These tend to work better at a primary school level than secondary school level, but anything is worth trying at any phase. These include reading games, reading groups, older, more confident readers helping younger children with reading, reading for prizes and other, creative reading activities. All research points to the fact that writing book reviews is the least welcomed reading activity!

 

  • Set up displays (electronic and traditional)

Have a dedicated board in your classroom for latest book news, and in primary schools, offer reading nooks and corners – as well as classroom collections. Encourage your students to add material to your reading boards. Use technology if you can support it: book trailers are freely downloadable from YouTube, if you have somewhere to run them. QR codes are fun and easy to create – these can add a new dimension to your pleading for reading, as long as your students have smartphones and have downloaded the (free) app! If you have a classroom blog or a media centre blog use it as another platform to offer your students links. Use all the colleagues in your school – create READ posters of your colleagues holding up their favourite books and display these everywhere. Encourage all your colleagues to talk about their personal reading, not only the teachers of languages.

  • Celebrate special days

Celebrate days that are linked to reading: International Mother Language Day, February 21, World Read Aloud Day, March 7th, World Storytelling Day, March 21st (the theme for 2013 is Fortune and Fate), World Book Day and Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, World Book Night is celebrated on the same day, only at night– there is a fantastic website and an exciting list of (mainly) senior reads each year. Let’s plan on bringing World Book Night to South Africa!

Look for the official websites of all of these occasions, sign up for the newsletters and begin planning special days for next year. Perhaps invite a professional story teller for World Storytelling Day? There is so much that can be done with the theme of Fortune and Fate in 2012 with primary school and GET phase students, especially. Research has shown again and again that everyone, children and adults, enjoys having stories read to them or told to them.

  • Set up author contact / look up official websites, linked websites, webinars

There can be few things as exciting as live contact with authors. Now that we can Skype, it is a cheap option, but bring in live authors when feasible, link their talk to a point of sale and an autograph session. Most writers can be found online, via their official website.

There are so many ways to make a book come alive, for students of all ages. Webinars are online seminars, which are usually accessed by belonging to an online education forum or publication of some kind (membership is usually free).  Webinars can come at a cost but one that is considerably cheaper than flying somewhere for a week.

  • Go to websites to help answer the question, ‘What should I read next?’

If you’re stumped, have your students register on Good Reads (www.goodreads.com).  There is a clever algorithmic test that readers can take for ten minutes or so, within the genres they have specified. Once the students have finished the ‘test’, the website, which is a jolly good resource anyway, suggests which books they should be reading next.  Good Reads has added their Good Reads for Facebook Timeline link, and in just under two weeks, Facebook readers the world over had added over a million books they had been reading! Shelfari (www.shelfari.com ) is also a goody.

Penguin South Africa has just launched The Wall(http://penguinbooks.co.za/young-adult-books)– if students ‘like’ the page, they have the chance to enter competitions, get books news and write their own reviews for others to read! (Facebook is not intended for users younger than 13.)

  • Subscribe

Subscribe to the myriad of book news, blogs and letters online:  for example, lovereading4kids.  Read online book reviews from local and international sources. Subscribe to magazines such as The Good Books guide or follow them online.  Use online book stores too – you will be bombarded (in a good way) with useful information. Follow the literary prizes, too – the Man Booker is an obvious senior one with a fantastic website chock full of useful resources and information (www.themanbookerprize.com) but more junior ones include the Newbery, the Carnegie and the Greenaway medal.

  • Use Twitter

Twitter (https://twitter.com/)  is not only about Justin Bieber – it is the most fantastic resource to follow your favourite authors, follow publishing houses and keep up to date with a myriad of book news. And before you groan and think that you get more enough to read every day, remember that Twitter is a micro-blogging service; the messages are only 140 characters long (including spaces) but you can add links or images. Set up a Twitter account that your (older) students can follow.

  • Add yourself to bookshop mailing lists

In this way you can be invited to their book promotions and receive their new letters (this applies to e-books too). Many book stores are trying harder than ever to make p-books attractive, and you don’t need to live anywhere near the bookshop to benefit from the online newsletter.

  • Encourage keen readers  to keep you informed

Let them tell you what they reading and what you need to be aware of – as a librarian, I encourage girls to tell me about books they think we must have and to give me the information I need to make an informed choice, which includes them.  My keen readers (and every school has them, you simply need to identify them) are an invaluable source of information.  And when you give your students a voice and they know it is being heard, that line of communication will never be closed again, even when the students move on.

  • Set up cluster groups

We did not pursue this angle when I was part of cluster groups and teaching English, but it would work so well. We are in constant contact with one another about matters pertaining to assessment, teaching and learning and how we deliver the curriculum. Why not use those smaller, more intense groups to share recommended reading lists or ideas for reading activities, book programmes and assessments? A Twitter account in the cluster group’s name could be set up, for example, making communication fast and easy – straight to cell phones, short and to the point. Websites can be linked at the touch of a mouse.

 

The community of learning’s emphasis must fall on community.

The most important aspect of the latter part of this presentation is that we are not, as Lewis pointed out, alone.

To end then as I began – with a quote by one of my favourite authors, Dr Seuss, from his book, The Lorax:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, /Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.’