Why our kids don’t read

Today is the World Book Day. For book lovers, for avid readers, it is common sense how wide a world reading is able to open us to. I suspect this is not a common sense to the general Hong Kong population. Perhaps we do know, as a matter of fact, that reading does a lot of good, but we just don’t read.

Hong Kong Public Libraries have recently released the ranking of books lent in 2016. For Chinese non-fiction, the top 10 are all tour guide books, with the exception of one – HKDSE Chinese Langauge past paper. This certainly reflects how much Hong Kong people love travelling, especially to Japan. Well yes, I love travelling to Japan too. But it definitely is a worrying indicator when 9 out of 10 books on the top borrowing list are tour guide books, with the remaining one a set of public exam past paper. Where are all the other kinds of books? Is it a problem of our library collection? Is it really because Hong Kong people are too busy?

Perhaps busy life is an important factor. It is not news that Hong Kong people are always overworked. We don’t have time. We are busy people. We are too tired after work and we just don’t want to use our brain any further on days of rest. However, growing up in the Hong Kong education system and having been a secondary school English teacher for three years, I have to say that schools in Hong Kong have not been doing a great job in cultivating an atmosphere of reading.

All schools say they promote reading. Yes, that’s probably on the agenda of every Chinese and English department. How do we do that? We organise book fairs. Fine. We hold author talks. Fine. We ask students to do book reports. Go borrow a book and write me a 200-word reflection after the Easter holiday. What happens then? We teachers have to act as human plagiarism detectors, and every time we are bound to find some Wikipedia entries or online sources copied verbatim (or, for some more ‘skilful’ kids, an adapted or abridged version of those sources) in some of the book reports. And then we yell at them for copying online materials. Then we force them to re-do it.

Are we cultivating an atmosphere of reading? Or are we actually increasing their hatred towards reading?

boy-reading-a-book

Children’s literature as an academic discipline began as a branch of educational research, the aim of which was to find good books for children, also for teachers to use in classrooms. This idea is actually rather alien to me. We’ve never really used books – except textbooks – in Hong Kong classrooms. Perhaps very occasionally we have a ‘reader lesson’, which more often than not is sacrificed when the teacher decides that they need to spend more time on grammar. Even when we do have a reader lesson, a lot of the English teachers just use it as another material for teaching vocabulary or sentence patterns.

When I told my supervisor about this situation, she was utterly surprised. This obviously is not the way things work in the English-speaking countries.

So when we ask why our kids don’t read, perhaps we should start by asking ‘why don’t we teach them to read?’ Just as we don’t expect students to be able to learn grammar on their own, and hence we devote a lot of time explaining the rules and giving them practices, why would we expect the kids to know how to write a wonderful reflection on a book just by assigning a book report assignment to them? They are already overwhelmed by school work, why would we think they could enjoy reading by giving them one more assignment? Over the three years I taught, I was guilty of this. I was also one of teachers who simply assigned book report assignments without devoting time to teaching them how to read. I simply couldn’t spare the time, because we had a lot of other things on the teaching scheme: grammar, writing, reading comprehension (which must be distinguished from the kind of reading I am talking about), listening… Our priority was to teach all these that will appear in their exam.

I didn’t learn to read in schools. I don’t remember my teachers telling me what to read for. Character analysis, plot development, themes of a book… were all alien concepts to me. They are still alien to students today and most of them don’t know what to read for even when they read. No wonder the most typical thing we can expect to see in a book report is ‘the book teach me never give up’ (grammatical inaccuracy intended).

If we teachers do believe in the importance of reading, we should teach students how to read and also spare time for that. We should take the kids into the wonderful world of books, rather than forcing them to do something that they don’t even see their teachers do. Institutional arrangement has to be made: for example, there should be one lesson per week/cycle devoted to reading activities, when teachers can take the kids to the library, or do activities like storytelling and reading circles. It is also crucial to change the mindset of teachers and make them aware that this is something we need to spend time on, just like other components of langauge learning. Only when the teachers and the schools actually recognise the importance of reading by dedicating time and effort to it could our kids actually start to appreciate books and the act of reading.