Dhiraj Pratim Medhi
Free reading, as the name suggests, is to “read anything that your taste demands”. But, why should we emphasize on ‘free reading’ at an early age? The reason is very simple. Children have an innate interest in reading. They are curious about the things they see around them, and also about those they don’t. As teachers and their guides we may or may not be able to satiate their curiosity, which is why developing a reading habit makes a lot of sense.
When I talk about free reading, I talk about giving children the liberty to choose what they want to read. Free reading helps children discover their own world of wonder and imagination. Once they get a taste of reading without any interference and explore their questions and the wonders of their own world, they will never cease to read.
Often, I have heard teachers (in government schools specially) complaining that children don’t want to read. When I asked these teachers what kind of reading they are talking about, I realized that they were talking about the textbooks. For most teachers, reading means ‘reading a textbook’, and it is no different for the kids as they too are groomed to think that way. As a result, “reading” becomes boring for them. They don’t find answers to their questions in the textbooks, which limits their imagination.
We must remember that when we say ‘reading’, it involves understanding and connecting the content with the prior knowledge and experience of the reader. If we consider this as the actual meaning of reading, then all our pre-established ideas about reading collapse. I have seen most teachers (in the schools I visited) equating ‘decoding’ with ‘reading’. Decoding and reading are two different things. Decoding is an initial stage in reading. And when decoding is accompanied by meaning making thereby understanding and connected with the previous experience and knowledge of the reader, then it is considered ‘reading’ in a proper manner.
So, what should we do to foster reading in children? From my recent experience, I have seen that exposing children to ‘free reading’ makes our task very easy.
For this, I strongly believe in establishing ‘reading corners’ in schools. This is an initiative that the Azim Premji Foundation has taken up with government schools in Uttarakhand.
How do we establish a ‘reading corner’?
Establishing a ‘reading corner’ is not a Herculean task. However, we have set a few criteria to establish a ‘reading corner’ in schools to synchronize and smoothen the task. Here are a few things we do to establish a ‘reading corner’:
- Put together a set of 30-35 books for a school.
- We find a place in the school that is suitable for reading.
- We also make a list of the books that the school already has.
- We place all the books in a room or a corner in interesting ways, e.g., by hanging them on threads or ropes so that they look appealing to the kids.
- As a rule, no teacher disturbs the kids and interferes by telling them which book to read. They are free to read any book in the reading corner.
- Each class will be provided a period during their school hour to read. However, they are free to read in their leisure time (like during the mid-day meal/when the teacher is absent or during off periods) too. Most schools in Uttarkashi have two teachers (in primary classes). So, there is always scope and free time for the kids to read books.
- The schools are also given a register, where students can issue the books for reading at home. Initially, teachers guide them on entering the data in the register, but gradually the children themselves start maintaining the register. In this way, they will feel a sense of responsibility too.
- Teachers won’t ask the kids what they have understood or learnt from the stories they have read (which we often tend to do) in the initial months. However, gradually they can be encouraged to tell a story during free time or at the assembly.
- Reading does not happen in isolation. It is said that a reader reads better when s/he writes as well. So, after a few months, the kids may be encouraged to express the feelings they experience after reading the stories of their choice. However, this should be introduced in a subtle manner and gradually so that they don’t feel reading an obligation.
How are reading corners different from libraries?
In a reading corner, children will be exposed to a variety of books (storybooks, picture books, etc.), in an interesting manner so that they find themselves surrounded by colourful books. They will have a set of 30-35 books on average. After a month or two, however, these books will be exchanged with those of another (nearby) school. In this way, both schools will have a new set of books, which does not happen in the case of a ‘library’. In this way, students will read the books quickly. Moreover, the school does not have to buy books every time, as books will be exchanged with other schools.
So, in a nutshell, a ‘reading corner’ is an informal space for reading and exploring the world the child imagines. It opens up various avenues for the child. We are often worried about achieving the learning outcomes in our schools. We plan things so much that we forget to provide liberty to the kids while it comes to reading. But, we must remember that reading is something that can be developed and nurtured in the child with patience and perseverance. Once we make it an obligation, the child will lose interest in reading and exploring his/her world of curiosity and imagination. Reading is an art that needs to be nurtured at a very early age. So, let the kids be their own masters and feel the experience.
The author is an Associate Resource Person with Azim Premji Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com.