Someone once said, “The best thing about books is that sometimes they have pictures.” As children get used to powerful visuals on digital media, this statement rings even more true. Books simply do not have the kind of magnetic pull that fast-moving, colourful images on screen do. However, books do have the hidden treasure of depth of imagination and understanding that can only be uncovered by a curious child willing to experiment, explore and discover.
Children often get intimidated by the idea of “finishing” a book. It would help if parents have a pre-reading discussion about the characters and what they look like, what they might be feeling and what is interesting about the story. Children need some handholding while navigating a book — this does not imply telling them the storyline; often all it requires is asking a host of questions that may enable the child to think deeply about the content. For fictional texts, making predictions about what might happen or changing the ending may be a fun activity, especially for younger children. For older ones, linking the story to personal experiences and posing questions such as “what would you have done in this situation?” provides guidance for critical analysis.
Most non-fiction texts often appear boring unless the child is interested in that particular topic, such as the world of dinosaurs. However, it is important not only to expose a child to a wider range of texts and subjects but enable them to ask questions, draw from personal experience and create a wishlist. If it is a text about inventions in transport, they might be able to tell you what they wish they could invent, or imagine a new kind of vehicle that they would like to use. The essential prerequisite for reading is speaking skills, and once we focus on developing children’s capacity to construct and voice an opinion, they can weave their way through stories with greater ease. It is not the willingness to learn, but the curiosity to know what happens in a story that propels a child to read more.
In school, characters were often introduced to us in a blasé tone: “this is Peter” followed by a description that leaves little room for imagination. Later, children are asked to write “character sketches” that look more like cookie-cut answers fulfilling the teachers’ expectations rather than allowing a child to apply cognitive skills in drawing conclusions about the character. If we were to flip the mode of such instruction, children could be encouraged to explore by looking closely at the facial expressions of characters to decipher emotion, analyse their behaviour and use their own vocabulary bank to describe what the character might be thinking or feeling. Using a multi-sensory approach is significant in cultivating a sense of empathy and compassion through reading activities.
Once children learn to identify with characters’ emotions, they read with a keener interest in the evolution of behaviour and learn to make connections with real-life situations, predictions about how the story will unfold and understand the nuances and twists in the tale — all significant ingredients for inference and critical analysis. Curiosity leads to discovery, which is the other significant element in developing reading and comprehension skills.
Uncovering the layers of any genre of text becomes a Herculean task for children who have not been exposed to higher-order thinking skills — who do not quite learn how to dig deep into the context, description, characters and action. Much like caviar, reading is an acquired taste and until one learns to enjoy it, we don’t really know what we are missing. As children become accustomed to exploring books, they gradually develop a tendency towards inference — digging deep for hidden meanings. Through this skill, they begin to appreciate different perspectives, have an eye for depth and detail and analyse storylines and characters in innovative ways.
The skills acquired from fictional reading lend themselves to the building blocks of inquiry-based writing. Children who read a lot ask themselves questions about their own writing, helping themselves organise and give shape to their thoughts. Reading is a receptive skill while writing is expressive — reading therefore moulds perspective. Individuals at any age make meaning of information by linking it to personal experiences — if they read a book without processing or internalising the content, they will perhaps remain disconnected from its essence. It is only when they identify with what they read that they are able to critically analyse and use it as a stepping stone for ideas in their own writing. An in-depth involvement of thought and feeling poured into reading will necessarily reflect in the ways children “own” their writing and are able to manipulate words, self-correct, consolidate and strengthen their compositions.