By Zubeida Mustafa
THE ten-year-old drones on as he pausesat the end of each paragraph glancingfurtively at his teacherfor the eagerly awaited signal to stop.
The four-i ear-old enthusiastically turns the pages of his picture book as be concentrates on whatthe illustrations are trying to convey.
Although the older child is doingwhat would technically be called the act 0f reading recognizing the printed letter and decodingit into pronounceable words it is the four-year-old who isactually doing more readingfor reading is a complete actof communication which correspondsto the act of writing in thesense that it involves responseand feedback from the reader.
Despite the advantages of reinterpretationand retrospectionwhich reading offers, many people are not inclined to take upa book purely for recreation. They would much prefer the TV screen. Surprising thoughit might appear this is the case,to a greater extent, in the developed countries where literacyis universal and where onewould expect to take the readinghabit for granted. Thus it is estimated that in France 53 percent, in Netherlands 40 per centand in Hungary 39 per cent ofthe adults do not read books.But in Bangladesh where literacyis low barelya tenth of the literate people are non-readers, since those whoare literate are highly motivated.
What might eome as a greatersurprise is that adults are notas voracious readers as children A survey conducted by the PakistanLibrary Association in1972 on the “Reading Habits in Pakistan” revealed that 32 percent of adults and 23 per centof students had not read a book in the preceding three months.
Sociologists agree that lifelongreading habits inculcated inthe child can ensure that he will continue to read books evenwhen it is really not compulsoryfor him to do so. In other words all children (like adults)who acquire familiarity withthe printed letter have to be motivated to read books forpleasure. Since man has the innatedesire to communicate, it should not be difficult to createin him the urge to read books.
Do our children read booksapart from the course booksthey are required to study to pass their examinations? A surveyof the reading habits ofschool-going children (aged 6 to 15 years) in Karachi sponsoredby the National Book Council in1975 revealed that only 10 per cent of the children intervieweddid not read any books. Thisshows that most children do like to read for pleasure, althoughthis does not indicate the quantumof reading they do or for that matter the quality of thebookg read.
It is interesting to learn that girls are more prolific readersthan boys who are possibly more keen about playing cricket andhockey in their front garden orback street. But more regrettable is the tendency among youngchildren to watch television ratherthan read a book. The preference for TV was indicatedby 68 per cent of the children a rather deplorable state of affair, given the poor quality ofthe TV programmes we are exposed to. Newspapers also donot appear to be very popularwith young readers, only 14 per cent read newspapers andthat too mostly for cartoons.
So, it is obvious that ourschool-going children do read books, but this information canbe quite deceptive since the
quality oftneir leading is suchthat they might not really bebenefitingfrom their readinghabits. What kind of books theylike to read is actually the trickyquestion. Thethemes in order ofpreference indicated are adventure, humour, fairy tales,folktales and last of all historicalepics. Since most children readUrdu books and given the standardof the books like those onTarzan and the detective stuffcommonly churned out, it can safely be deduced that whatmost children read is trash. Onecan hardly blame them. Our history has plenty of potential toprovide themes for children’sbooks but children do not like sermons and that is the onlystyle our writers find in whichthey can project our past history.
One little bit of informationI find most revealing is thatmost of the borrowing children do is from local libraries theanna library as they are called. Surprisingly school libraries account for only 14.5 per cent ofreaders and only 12.5 per cent have personal libraries, however, small, at home, In fact over 40per cent of the parents do notbuy books for their kids.
This marked preference forthe local library rather than theschool library can be attributed not so much to the absence ofthe school library as to the qualityof its collections. Because the local library tends to stockcheap adventure stories and comics it is more popular than the classroom library which keeps standard works and classics.
Parents hardly help. Theyare not bothered to buy booksfor their children or teach them to build up their own private libraries even small ones. The habit of collecting booksfosters the reading habit sinceit encourages a person to revert again and again to his bookswhich he reads and re-reads when they are easily accessible.
Talking to a few bright youngsters who read a lot, 1 felt thatthe main reason why childrengo in for trash is that good literature is not easily available forthem and they do not receivethe guidance all children need in selecting the. material for reading. Asma, Rashid and Hamid(ages ranging from ten to Twelve years) were quite decidedin their preference for Englishbooks. Here it should be made clear that these youngstersattend Urdu mediumschools and are not as much at home in English as in Urdu, their mother-tongue.
The reason these children gave me for their choice was that(which incidentally are generally Published b British and American book companies) are infinitely more interesting, imaginatively written, have greater versatility in their themes, aremore informative and have plenty of sketches, maps and pictureswhich stimulate thought. All
these qualities are so importantfor a child, that despite the handicap of being written in analien language these books appealed more to the children even though they had slight difficulty in comprehension.
The lack of interest displayedby the parents in their children’s reading habits is equally matched with the utter apathy
on the part of our teachers Asma and Rashid told me that they have a “library period” inschool when they are asked to visit the school library ind choose a book to read. But theirteachers never guided them inthe selection of books or everdiscussed in class informally abook any students had read. Asa result no interest is stimulatedin the children and most ot them are never motivated toread a book outside theircourse.
Parents do not care either so long as their children continue to secure good grades in thentests. But this identification of reading with course books means that when schooling ends, whatever reading habit a childhas comes to an end.