By Zubeida Mustafa
TWENTY years ago the National Book Council of Pakistan conducted a survey on the reading habits of children. Interestingly it found that one out of seven children in the 11-15 years age group did not read books apart from their course book. The children interviewed came mainly from middle-class backgrounds.
In 1981, another survey found that one out of five students did not want to read books. These findings were quite alarming. We do not know if the situation is any better today. Given the longer TV transmission hours, the variety of programmes on the dish which so many households now have and the easy availability of the VCR, children are more easily distracted and less likely to be interested in books. Moreover the reading material has become so prohibitively expensive that many people of modest means can be forgiven for worrying about their bread and butter rather than buying books to read. To ascertain present trends, we decided to conduct a mini-survey. Only children from relatively affluent homes were selected. Since they study in private English medium schools of Karachi they can be expected to have access to good literature and the resources to acquire it. Hence they can have no valid excuse for not reading. Much to our relief we found that children have not abandoned the age-old hobby of reading for pleasure altogether. Quite a substantial majority of youngsters (aged 13-15 years) are reading on an average more than two books a month. Admittedly, a third of the children surveyed said that they had read fewer than six books in the past six months (seven out of 295 had read no book at all) but one can take comfort from the larger number which has remained faithful to its printed companion. This is confirmed by some of the booksellers dealing with children’s books. The OUP was quite happy with the turn-out of its younger customers at a book fair it organised recently in Karachi.
Teachers also confirmed that children from affluent homes are reading more books today. What could be more worrying is the quality and types of books children are reading and the relatively greater number of hours they are spending before the miniscreen. As is understandable, most of them go in for fiction. But historical stories, science fiction or the classics hardly interest young people any more. What is worse, the cheap stuff which was dismissed as trash in the good old days but is churned out on a commercial basis today dominates the reading of the younger generation. Series like the Sweet Dreams and Mills & Boons variety are devoured by the dozens. Nancy Drew, R.L.Styne and Christopher Pike are very popular although teachers strongly disapprove of the books written by these authors. Small wonder, a girl claimed to have read 270 books in six months devoting only two hours a day to leisure reading! She could well have been exaggerating. But she could also be stating the truth. Cheap romance books and comics can be addictive and take little time to finish. The teachers complain that these books constitute low grade reading. Mrs Suroor Akbar, who teaches in St Joseph’s Convent School, remarks, “Children seem to like this stuff because they feel they can identify with the intrigues and jealousies round which the plot is woven. Even in terms of language, these books make poor literature. They have sounds stringed together and not much by way of vocabulary or style. Their main feature is that they do not tax the mind, hence their popularity with youngsters brought up on television who are not used to exerting their minds and imaginations to comprehend and enjoy the written word. It is shocking that some schools are stocking their libraries with these cheap books.”
Another significant development is that the full-length novel — even the classics — seems to be on its way out. The condensed or re-told versions of the well-known writers of classics are very much in vogue today. Even the older children prefer to read the abridged editions. That is how probably some of them claimed to be finishing a book in three-and-a-half hours! Therefore the time spent in reading books every day is a better measure of children’s reading habits. Only one out of five children (20 per cent) said they were reading on an average two hours or more a day.
The teachers who take an active interest in the reading habits of their pupils are in a dilemma. Suroor Akbar says she is puzzled. Should she stop the child from reading trash and thus risk taking him/her away from books altogether? “I am looking around for writers who use good language with a rich vocabulary but write about themes which are attractive to young people, for instance Roald Dahl. I also encourage children to read Enid Blyton.”
Teachers can make a lot of difference by influencing the children’s choice of literature, Ajmal Noorani, who teaches English in PECHS School, feels. When teachers take an interest in what their students are reading and discuss books and writers in class they stimulate a child’s mind and create an interest in him in good books. Admittedly the parents set the trend. They are the first ones to introduce a child to the world of books. But as he grows older his choice of books is determined by what his friends are reading and what he hears and sees in school. The same old peer pressure that has dogged young people for generations is also at work in determining their choice of books for reading. Trashy books have somehow caught on. Booksellers and the anna library keepers are also promoting the sale of these books which are addictive and therefore sell fast. Teachers are failing in their duty by not countering this trend.
Ajmal is very emphatic that a teacher’s role can be crucial in promoting healthy reading habits. “If she guides the students in respect of the books they should read they will not be misled into reading trash. The teacher should also monitor the child’s reading. I feel that this can best be done by introducing the library period so that children are actively encouraged to borrow books and read them.”
‘The tragedy is that not all teachers are taking enough interest in what their pupils read. Probably they had not read many books themselves in their youth and do not do so now either,” Ajmal observes. Her observation was confirmed by nearly 40 per cent of the children surveyed who said that their teachers did not really discuss books regularly in class. Another negative factor is that the school library is not receiving the importance it merits. The major source of books to emerge from the survey was the library. And yet educational institutions are not looking after their libraries. Much would depend on the kind of books stocked there. Also decisive is the fact whether library periods are included in the timetable to ensure that the children visit the library and borrow books. What was disappointing however was the fact that children no longer give books as gifts to their friends. There was a time when a child could collect a good stock of reading material on his birthday. Values have changed now and books are no longer considered attractive items to present to someone.
All said and done, the biggest challenge to books comes from television as is happening all over the world. In the pre-TV days of yore the children who would not read books were the sporting Sams who loved to go out and play. Today it is TV which not only drags them away from their books, but it also distorts their intellectual faculties.
They stop taxing their minds and want everything presented to them in such a way that they are not required to think. Even the good books are now available as films for viewing on the VCR. Hence 42 per cent of the children said that they watch TV for two hours or more every day when only 20 per cent read books for the same number of hours.
It is more worrying that children now definitely prefer to watch television, even though they might be avid readers. Ajmal Noorani is quite clear that a child has to be inducted calculatedly into reading books. She feels that there is need to create awareness among teachers about the importance of reading. The technique she uses is to ask children to read for at least fifteen minutes every day. She also asks the children to take out an interesting passage which they read out in class. That creates interest in. all students in a particular book. This idea should actively be explored and tried. Without active intervention from teachers and parents, children’s reading habits wilI continue to decline.
Source: Dawn 27-02-1996