By Zubeida Mustafa
READING is an essential element of education, and textbooks are an integral part of the curricula of formal education that can’t shrugged off. But reading books other than course texts helps children enrich their minds and makes them superior to their ‘non-reading’ peers.
Yet the general impression is that our children are not into the reading culture. This is surprising because in the last few years children’s books have flooded the market and some of them are really good. They have all the qualities a book should have to grip the readers’ interest — a lively style, strong storylines and characters with which our children can connect.
To confirm this observation, I decided to test four books by a published author, Shahbano Bilgrami, in the Munna Man and Baby Lady series on two young avid readers aged 11-12, studying in two elite English-medium schools. I chose them as the subjects because their mothers offered their full cooperation in my experiment. This explains the secret of these youngsters’ interest in books — their mothers facilitate their hobby.
Schools do not motivate their students to read books.
Age-wise the girls seemed to be appropriate for the books. This was my conjecture. Both enjoyed reading the books which they finished very fast and understood fully. They could connect with the characters. The places mentioned were familiar to them. Significantly, they said they wanted more of such books to be available to them.
Why then, one may ask, are people still lamenting poor reading habits in our children? The fact is that the love of books is inculcated in childhood. In spite of the availability of good literature, young readers are not being provided incentives by their parents and teachers.
One must remember that increasingly our society is being bifurcated — those reading English books and the ‘others’ — the latter being the underprivileged majority. The English-reading children have too many non-book-related occupations to keep them engaged. Likewise their parents also have no time for them as they are busy with their own non-literary pursuits. The children of the ‘others’ hardly read storybooks because not all are enrolled in school and most have parents who are illiterate.
The schools — even those that have libraries — do not motivate their students to read books. They are too focused on textbooks, exams and results.
Another major dividing factor is language. Take the books by Shahbano Bilgrami mentioned above. My students from The Garage School where I teach, aged 15, couldn’t cope with them. In 20 minutes they read only one page with a lot of prompting from me. It was unfamiliar to them and the language was difficult. Fatema and Ursula, the students from the English-medium school, on the other hand, finished the entire book in 20 minutes or so.
What is needed is a measure of uniformity — even though graded — in the children’s literature market and more bilingualism in our schools. The children, whose mothers start speaking to them in English soon after birth, should be more familiarised with Urdu/ their mother tongue. A lady from a purely Urdu-speaking background sarcastically informed me that she teaches Urdu in English in one of the upscale schools.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi, our renowned author, who is bilingual, is trying to change this culture through the new books and pedagogy he has developed to make Urdu more familiar to children who are losing touch with their own language. What could be very meaningful in the context of the reading habit is the new approach Musharraf has developed towards storytelling.
He firmly believes that storytelling engages children’s imagination and emotions. These faculties create a bond between the child and the spoken word. When the child reads the text, she revisits that world of imagination — created during storytelling — to relive that experience.
The ‘memorise, connect and improvise’, or MCI, method of storytelling he has developed emphasises interactive storytelling and the formation of a comfortable bond between the storyteller and his/her audience. The pleasure of storytelling is amplified both for the narrator and the audience when it becomes a group social activity. Reading out a story does not allow this bond to be formed if the narrator’s focus is on the book being read and not the audience. Musharraf has developed many such books that are profusely illustrated and serve this purpose well.
Shahbano could rewrite her lovely books in very simple language for the non-English speaking readers so that the MCI technique could be applied to them too. Any story that engages the children’s imagination or their emotions can be narrated effectively. The storyteller can exploit its elements through theatrics or drama. It is time schools tried out this approach to get children to read books for pleasure.
PS: My apologies for writing Sohail Fida’s name as Sohail Zia in my last column.