Encouraging reading and writing

Nina MK, Ph.D.
Recently one of my goddaughters turned ten; I gave her an Enid Blyton book and a dictionary as gifts. I know from experience that not every modern family possesses books in English, or any books for that matter; a good Longman dictionary is a rarity too. One of my functions among relatives and friends is not only similar gift-giving, but also a set of instructions. The little girl asked me exactly this question, “How do I start reading when I don’t know many words yet?” I opened the book, and showed her how to begin. Then we spent some time with the dictionary, learning how to look up the new words. The next question was, “But how do I remember them?” Naturally a child would think that if page 1 presented lots of difficulties, so would page 25, which fortunately is not true. Here is what I told the new beginner, as I have done many times before with other children.

• Set aside a good time for reading. You know you are free on Sunday morning? Mark those 30-40 minutes as your own very special lesson! It is important to understand that nobody makes you do it; you are engaged in this activity strictly for your own good. YOU are going to learn something new, and then YOU may share it with friends.
• Prepare your tools in advance. Take a copybook, put a nice label on it. If you wish, draw three columns on each page, so that you can write down a new word in one column, its pronunciation in the second column, and its translation into your language in the third one.
• Do not try to learn the words by heart, it is boring! Just write down any word again and again until you recognize it and remember its meaning. You may have to write the same word nine or ten times, but then it will remain in your memory for good.
• The first page is most often very difficult. Do not get discouraged if you manage to understand only one or two sentences during the very first lesson, just keep going. It will be easier and easier with each new page!
• Afterwards, tell your parents, your siblings and/or friends about your reading. What have you read? What did you understand from those first few pages? How does the story develop?
• NB. Probably you need to talk to parents about their child’s reading, and explain that by simply finding a few minutes once a week for listening to those simple retellings, in the child’s native language, they will help enhance their knowledge of English, as well as their reading and speaking skills.
• Extension. This never comes easy. After a good portion or even the whole book is read, you may suggest that the young readers try to write down their impressions. “I liked the book very much and want to read more” is good enough for a first-time review. “It was very difficult, but I wanted to know what happened next” is great. “It was boring at first, but my mother wanted to know more” is wonderful. “The book was very difficult, but I like the dictionary” is certainly unexpected but laudable. These are all true little “reviews” from young children. Whatever they manage to express in English deserves praise and encouragement.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that modern youngsters do not like to read, or do not read, period. I would beg to differ, albeit slightly. They all use the internet and spend a lot of time texting, browsing the social media et cetera. If they watch a film which they like, they may become interested in the original book. Just think of the “Harry Potter” decade, when it seemed that J.K. Rowling had single-handedly solved the eternal problem of childhood reading. I would say that checking the news on the internet, writing to friends, blogging and so on are the new ways of reading and writing on a continuous basis. When I have to commute to the city center, I see lots of young people in public transport with their noses in e-books.

Writing is a different matter. When we read, we digest somebody else’s ideas. When we have to write, we need to be able to express our own thoughts, which is much harder. At any age, any level we may feel lucky if we have one student in a class who is able and willing to write an essay, a story or a poem. I believe it is normal: throughout history, we do not see millions of writers. Yet each one of us needs to be able to write, and one of the good ways to encourage it is composing reviews. We may start with one sentence in primary school, and continue to larger compositions in middle and high school. A few simple questions work as pointers and help both children and adults to formulate their thoughts.

• What do you think of the book? Is it in any way related to your life?
• Which character do you like best? Which one do you dislike? Why?
• Did you find the language very difficult? Were there many new words?
• Could you predict how the story might develop?
• Did you guess the ending in advance?

Before you suggest that your students write “reviews”, offer a plan, a structured way of writing by posing some questions. When you are sure that they can do it, set aside a lesson for writing a review of any book they read, or set it aside as home-work, to be handed in in two weeks or even at the end of the term.
Last but not least: you may lend a good book to a student, which may be enough of an incentive for them to read it simply because their teacher gave it to them and they would feel proud!

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