To instil a love for books in children, parents must read for pleasure themselves, and must be seen doing so. That was the message coming from a recent panel discussion at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
The session, featuring local schoolteachers and children’s authors, highlighted the worldwide and long-term decline in reading among children, and offered some advice on how to encourage reading at home.
“It’s pretty depressing,” said Mary-Rose Grieve, a librarian at Hartland International School and winner of the Emirates Literature Foundation's School Librarian of the Year award in 2019. “But there’s an awful lot that we can do.”
Read aloud to youngsters
Citing a research paper by UK publishing group Farshore, Grieve said children who are read to by their parents on a daily basis were far more likely to develop independent reading habits at later ages.
“We all have to read aloud to our children all the time,” she said at the Reading Rocks discussion, which took place on Thursday on the main stage at the fair. “Not just once a week, or when we feel like it, but every day. School helps, but what parents do is crucial.
"I ask a lot parents if they read themselves, and they all say they do when they get into bed," Grieve said. The librarian then pointed out that if children don't actually see their parents reading books, they won't be as eager to know what is on its pages.
Act as role models
Ebtisam Al-Beiti, a schoolteacher and author of the Can I Go Out Now? children’s book, echoed the sentiment, saying reading shouldn’t stop at school, and that while a fascination for books can be developed in a classroom, parents have a formative role in fostering and sustaining healthy reading habits in their children.
“As educators and parents, we must be the role models and introduce reading to children,” she said. “The children must see the adults reading and then they will copy it.”
Al-Beiti also urged fathers to take a more active role in their children's reading activities.
“We need to break the stereotype,” she said. “Most people think that it's mum's job to read the bedtime story or to leave the teachers do it in school. There was actually another research [study] done by Scholastic, which says only 27 per cent of boys read for pleasure. We should get dads on board as well. That’s a great starting point. They also play a part.
“If children see it as their daily routine, they will understand that it is important,” Al-Beiti said. “And there is value to it as well."
Make books visibly available
Children’s book author Beverly Jatwani, known for her series of works that feature anthropomorphic animals including Pedro the Puerto Rican Parrot, Wanda the Blue Whale and Tala the Bengal Tiger, suggested displaying books around the house.
“The best way to encourage reading in young kids is to keep the books at eye level,” she said. “And secondly, to have them facing forward. The covers are more attractive than the spine of the book.”
Find breaks in the day for reading
There’s no denying that as children get older, their academic demands pile up, leaving them with little time or will to read for pleasure. Still, there are ways to ensure they sustain their engagement with the written word, the panel said.
“If you can't find the time to physically read, listen to Audible,” Grieve said. “As you're in the car, driving to school, put on Audible and listen together to a story. Listen on the way home. That 20-minute chunk of listening … at least they’re reading through their ears.”
Students should also be encouraged to think about books outside of academic contexts. Rather, Al-Beiti said, they should see it as a way to destress and break away from daily anxieties.
“A lot of schools have been doing Stop, Drop, and Read,” she said. “It’s a great concept for older kids. At any time of the day, you shout out ‘stop, drop, and read’, and whatever the children are doing, they should stop and drop everything and grab a book.
"The science behind this is associating reading with something calming. If we can get older children to view books as something enjoyable, something to remove their stress of the day, they are more likely to go want to do it by themselves later.”
Start getting them interested at a young age
The most effective way of making bibliophiles out of children is to instil in them a sense of wonder and familiarity towards books even before they have learnt to read.
“When I was working at a nursery, a parent once asked me why I had a book corner in my class when the children were only two and didn’t know how to read,” Al-Beiti said. “It's not about reading the words. We’re engraving a relationship between the child and the book, and how can you have a relationship with the book if you don't have access to the book?
"Even just looking through the pictures or learning how to turn a page. It's gaining that relationship. And slowly, when that child grows older, they will appreciate books and the information that they can get from them. So it's just having that relationship from the beginning.”