A survey conducted by an international non –governmental organization has been pointed out that in Pakistan, reading culture is fast deteriorating; not only in educational institutions, but also at community level. The findings of this survey are very interesting and thought provoking - undoubtedly, an eye opener and wake-up call for our policy makers, educationists and parents. It has been reported that a child of fifth grade cannot read the books of level three, or the books other than the ones published by provincial textbook boards, which are supposedly established for producing quality books for similar levels.
Similarly, at higher levels, the students doing bachelor or post- graduation cannot read the books of secondary level. More importantly, the teachers appointed to teach post-secondary classes lack desired competence and skills to teach books of intermediate level without the assistance of helping material.
Generally, reading involves pronunciation of words as well as understanding of the content. Therefore, both are complimentary - if one is the body, other is the soul and quintessence of it. Healthy reading habits help learners acquire desirable and meaningful knowledge. Good reading habits are a strong weapon for the students to excel in life. Therefore, reading should be of major concern to everyone - children, teachers and parents alike - because reading as an aspect of language has an important effect upon the child’s general development: his power of thinking and cognitive development.
If we look into its core and evaluate the ground realities, the findings of this survey speak volumes of their validity and authenticity and can be safely applied to the private and public sectors equally. At school level, the standard of pronunciation of Urdu and English, the main component of communication is manifestly below par, chiefly in rural schools. Reading for comprehension has been reduced to sheer class-based activity, done unilaterally by teachers and limited to mere cramming by students - with the singular aim of getting good grades. There is no concern and niche for extensive reading, namely, reading for pleasure or getting overall concepts and themes. This grim scenario drives home the glaring reality that the quality of education is at the lowest ebb, even though the quantity - ostensibly claimed - is increasing. The reasons for this deficiency or disproportion are many and varied, calling for introspection from the policy makers.
To begin with, we can say that it is because of the general, all-pervasive mentality and perception among people that curriculum books are the ultimate source of acquiring proficiency and growth of reading and writing skills. As a matter of fact, almost all educational institutions rarely go outside the confines of curriculum. There are a few exceptions in the private sector where library constitutes a paramount source of academic learning and teaching activities.
Majority of our teachers are, in essence, lacking in terms of their command over the subject as well as desired skills to discharge their instructive roles effectively in classrooms. The basic skill of reading, using context to comprehend meanings, is a far cry for the majority of teachers of languages. Resultantly, it makes them heavily dependent on dictionary – a poor reading habit if not judiciously used. The ability to predict and make out meanings by meeting the writers half way, essentially a chief proficiency for language teachers, is also missing in pedagogy. Likewise, the capability of critiquing in academics of humanities, a vital ability especially at post- secondary level is abysmally low. The advance skill of weighing and measuring the content and subject matter chiefly in their area of specialty is mighty poor. Likewise, the rigid attitude and conditioned mindset of students is another loophole in this regard. Students settle down to read only when given assignments or during examination period. Lack of extra reading materials in schools affects their reading habit and makes it difficult for them to make adequate use of the library. Another significant reason is the culture of cramming which holds sway over our testing and evaluation systems. It is obliviously fed and fostered by our faulty examination system and religious seminaries. It has further hampered and choked the germination and growth of creative and critical reading. Moreover, it is not hyperbolic to say that reading at community level has fallen tremendously. A learned educationist mockingly, but justly commented that most of our so-called learned lot reads attentively and thoroughly one book, namely, Facebook. It is unfortunate that students do not read to improve their minds or for the purpose of pleasure; they only open books for examination purposes. Also, it is observed books are costly and many parents are poor, and cannot afford the high cost of books for their children. Most students merely manage to purchase textbooks out of the whole recommended texts. Lack of physical facilities such as tables, chairs and good light needed for reading in secondary schools is also a contributory factor. Space needed to read and learn is a rare luxury, not available to all students.
Additionally, teachers are not knowledgeable about children’s literature. Many of them are not able to introduce students to the wealth of books available and they may not recognize the effects of their teaching methods on students’ attitude towards reading.
Another ridiculous reasoning in this regard is attributed to the arrival of electronic and digital libraries through the internet which is fast replacing formal reading. The access to technology is a good measure and should receive due attention. However, it cannot be a substitute to formal reading, as one can read a book at a stretch for many hours without strain as compared to screen reading. Interestingly, even in the contemporary advanced world which is the proponent of modern technology, reportedly, the tendency of reading of books manually is increasing while in our country it is dwindling. According to language scholars, children have different levels of language acquisition device (LAD). However, if they possess good study habits, they can perform well in academic achievements and in every other situation in life.
To improve and enhance reading awareness and, subsequently, the reading habits of students, there are certain policies and actions which ought to be taken by all the stakeholders of education to develop the pragmatic growth of reading culture in the country.
Children are motivated to read when they see adults around them reading books. Teachers can stimulate the students by being their role models. They should also improve the method of inculcating the love of reading. Teachers, who consistently bring their classes to the library for skill lessons and also to do content area research, can nurture such students who frequently use library for independent reading. Similarly, involving students in frequent reading and writing activities by using varied and adequate teaching aids can enhance the habit of reading. Besides, students ought to be encouraged to read aloud during teaching sessions. A visit to the library enables students to select books on subjects that interest them; resultantly, it helps develop reading abilities. Each school should have a functional library manned by a professional librarian. Adequate time for reading in library should be included in the school timetable. The heads of institutions should ensure that sufficient time is allocated for reading in the institution timetable. They should also encourage teachers to teach reading as a separate subject in the schools.
School libraries should organize reading activities from time to time which may include awarding prizes to the students who are proficient in reading and writing. Educational institutions need to provide access to the internet and subsequently to digital libraries. It would give them wider access to the latest advanced knowledge. Variety of reading materials like storybooks, novels, newspapers and magazines should be provided for the students’ leisure time.
The role of parents is also paramount in this regard. They should encourage their children to read by creating a reading friendly environment at home. They should also manage to have a good library at home with adequate children’s literature.
The need of the hour is to start from the scratch with optimism and evolve the culture of reading from elementary to the highest seats of learning, our universities. In this regard, the prime responsibilities lie with teachers, academics and educationists; they are the role models and must do all they can to make their students emulated them. Governmental and non-governmental organizations should earmark considerable funds to equip schools with libraries, coupled with mandatory library class in all educational institutions to form reading habits in students. Essentially, it must be followed by a proper appraisal and evaluation system. Besides, massive awareness raising campaigns and establishment of public libraries at community level should be undertaken on emergency basis. The faster we grow this culture, the better it is for the enhancement of quality education and reading culture.
Professor Khalid is Associate Professor and Chairman of English Department, Govt. Post Graduate College Trarkhel, District Poonch, Azad Kashmir