Why learners must be exposed to a variety of reading materials

The following passage, culled from the Media Observer, forms the basis of our discussion today: ‘On Tuesday last week, Deputy President William Ruto appeared on BBC’s Hard Talk show. The interview conducted by veteran journalist Stephen Sackur lived true to its name: Hard talk.

‘Listening to it, one got the feeling that one needs to have a snake charmer’s skills to master the art of interviewing a Kenyan politician. You know snake charmers – those fellows in Asia who blow a flute in front of a cobra.The snake, being blind, twists this way and that way depending on where it senses movement and body heat. Now, interviewing a Kenyan politician is something akin to this, only that in this case, the cobra can clearly see – perhaps even better than the interviewer – and sense in advance where the charmer is heading to. The result is a wrestling match of two cobras – the interviewer and the interviewee’.

A cobra is a venomous snake found in Africa and Asia. The use of a cobra to describe Ruto, even as a simile or metaphor, is specious. A cobra is neither blind (as claimed by the Media Observer), nor is it cunning; which is perhaps the light in which the author of the passage above intended to portray William Ruto.

Whenever one chooses to use any of the four types of writing, namely Expository (used to explain or describe), Descriptive (employing metaphors and similes), Persuasive (seeking to influence) or Narrative, there is need to exercise caution to avoid causing misunderstanding.

Bad form

While all similes are metaphors, the reverse is not true. Metaphors, which equate two dissimilar things for comparison or symbolism, are broader in scope. Similes are figures of speech comparing two different types of things to make a description of something, lay emphasis or make more vivid.

Snake charmers are described as individuals who make snakes move by playing a certain type of music, and they are not only found in Asia as claimed, for indeed, I have met some of our very own at the Coast. The expression “standing in front of a cobra’ as opposed to “standing before a cobra” is not so much ungrammatical as simply bad form.

In most cases when the object is inanimate, we use the phrase ‘ in front of’. For example, ‘Gladys stood in front of the building’, ‘Teacher John stood in front of the blackboard’, ‘The deranged man jumped in front of the moving car’. Conversely, where the object is animate, using ‘before’ is the correct form. For example, ‘The culprit seemed to wither before the Judge’, ‘Ole Maasai stood his ground before the charging lion’, ‘Before the mighty prophet, their heads remained bowed’.

Sufficient expository

To say or write ‘lived true to its name’ to mean ‘did not disappoint’ is a corruption of the correct idiomatic expression ‘lived up to’. Common idioms featuring the word live include ‘ live a lie’, ‘learn to live with’, ‘can’t live with’ while those that feature the word true include; ‘hold true’, ‘true to form’, ‘ring true’ and ‘dream come true’.

Another use of an expression that conveys bad form is captured in the sentence: “The snake twists this way and that way”. One might ask, which way? In such a narration, to write; ‘the snake twists its head one way then the other’ is sufficient expository, for the simple reason those reading the story were not present; don’t care whether the snake twisted its head to the North and South or East and West.

In all, one is treated to the writer’s narrow point of view, and the culprit for such, seeing that it affects many of us, is traceable. Some of the limitations we experience in expressing ourselves in the English language; Kenya’s official language of instruction, should be blamed on our education system. Ours is reliant on textbook learning, and therein lays the problem.

Concerns have been raised that learners leaving high school and college cannot write a coherent letter of application, neither do they concern themselves with reading.

Those who cannot write well, it follows, cannot also think clearly. After being taught to read, learners must be exposed to more reading materials; Novels (fiction and nonfiction), poetry, plays, biographies, not just textbooks.

Textbooks merely provide information on syllabus and most do not employ refined language to stimulate interest in reading besides cramming.

Notably too, textbook writers are not overly concerned with grammar rules. Drop fascination with school buses and go for better libraries. Encourage learners to read on their own for entertainment.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]

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