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Early reading, literary skills can immensely benefit learners

By Antoney Luvinzu | July 10th 2021

A teacher takes PP2 pupils through a lesson at Bidii Primary school in Nairobi on January 4, 2020, after learners resumed in-class learning countrywide after a nine-month disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.[Stafford Ondego,Standard]

At the height of his popularity and success, the late Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker aptly said that “reading is essential for those who seek to rise above the ordinary”. This is so true now, as it was back then, especially with children.

There is always a world of a difference between readers and non-readers. And in a school setting, it is remarkably easy to tell apart children who have been introduced to reading at an early age, and those who have not. Indicators include vocabulary and comprehension, speech performance, levels of imagination, creativity, social skills, ability to empathise or lack of it, concentration levels et cetera.

Reading is such an understated tool in improving a child’s social and cognitive abilities. It is almost magical! And it is a pity and a shame that we have not really embraced it and/or effectively applied it with our young ones.

In most schools that attempt it, library lessons are merely sessions of children reading anything they can lay their hands on, as the teacher marks, plans for the next lesson or finishes up on some work. No guidance, no structure, no follow-ups. How drab!

In our case, any serious interaction with books only happens in high school when learners are introduced to set-texts. And even here, over reliance on the so-called guides by some teachers and students kills the buzz, ruins the party. It defeats the whole idea of introducing children to active reading of truly and deeply and meaningfully savouring literature. 

Recent trends in education depict difficulties in teachers helping inspire the appreciation of literature in students. Unbridled appetite for and unmeasured usage of social media hugely contribute to this. And so to counter this, the introduction to literature ought to begin at the earliest levels of education.

The contemporary view of the role of literature reinforces the notion that literary texts can be used to teach language beginning at the earliest levels for better nurturing. The study of literature encourages empathy, tolerance for diversity, imagination and emotional intelligence, which is the understanding of feelings, both of one’s own and the others. Early interaction with literature equips children with such requisite cognitive skills not only vital in a school or work setting, but valuable in other life aspects.

In the International Baccalaureate (IB), from where the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) happens to borrow heavily, students from as early as Primary Years Programme Grade 5 are introduced to literary appreciation, which helps them acquire key learning milestones that are fundamental for future success – academically and socially. This includes their cognitive abilities to reflect on their knowledge, conceptual understandings and skills.

A wide range of assessment strategies informs learning and teaching of young learners. One of the marquee models in IB is the introduction of literature to students at an early age, provoking both artistic and scientific thinking and inquiry. What is more, it provides language models for children.

Critical thinking skills

Literary selections also provide authentic cultural information, help critical thinking skills and emphasise historical and literary traditions. The teaching of literature in elementary school using the appropriate pedagogical approaches and models not only develops linguistic abilities, but also offers behavioural models, which will contribute to children’s personal fulfilment.

Unlike our national curriculum, which introduces set texts in high school, the IB programme introduces set texts in junior school (primary years programme) from age 11. This enables learners develop analytical and critical thinking skills, enrich their imagination, relate the artistic works with real-life situations, interrogate topical/societal issues, and develop reading/comprehensive skills.

According to a June 2018 research done by Cynthia Zettler-Greeley, Assistant Director, Research and Evaluation, at Nemours Centre for Health Delivery Innovation in the United States, children in the fourth through to the eighth grade (ages 9–13) are best modelled to be introduced to set texts. These children usually have the ability to explore and understand different kinds of texts such as biographies, poetry and fiction; understand and explore expository, narrative and persuasive text; read to extract specific information, such as from a science book; understand relations between objects; identify parts of speech and devices like similes and metaphors; correctly identify major elements of stories like time, place, plot, problem and resolution; and most importantly analyse texts for meaning.

In the case of introducing children to reading in general, she states that most children learn to read by six or seven years of age. Occasionally, some children may learn at four or five years of age. In the first and second grade (ages 6–7), children usually begin to read familiar stories, “sound out” or decode unfamiliar words, use pictures and context to figure out unfamiliar words, and self-correct when they make a mistake while reading aloud.

Children’s literature is important because it provides students with opportunities to respond to and interrogate literary elements; gives students appreciation about their own cultural heritage as well as those of others; helps students develop emotional intelligence and creativity; nurtures growth and development of the student’s personality and social skills; and transmits important literature and themes from one generation to the next.

The first value to note is that children’s literature provides students with the opportunity to develop their own (informed) opinions about the thematic concerns, logically defend their positions, and develop communication and persuasive skills to articulate their thoughts. This strengthens the cognitive developmental domain as it encourages deeper thought about literature. Quality literature does not tell the reader everything he/she needs to know; it allows for some difference in opinion, interpretation and decoding of information.

Emotional intelligence

Early introduction to literary appreciation provides an avenue for students to learn about their own cultural heritage and the cultures of other people. It is crucial for children to learn these values because developing positive attitudes toward our own culture and the cultures of others is necessary for both social and personal development, mutual understanding and even tolerance to diversity.

Many books are available that depict culture as an important piece of society that is to be treasured and valued, and those books can have great value for students.

Moreover, early literary appreciation aids students in developing emotional intelligence. Stories have the power to promote emotional and moral development. Children’s literature contains numerous moments of crisis, when characters make moral decisions and contemplate the reasons for their decisions, an important skill for children to be modelled in. Children’s literature encourages students to think deeper about their own feelings.

Literature for children encourages creativity. It nurtures and promotes/expands the development of children’s internal imagination. Children’s literary appreciation is of value because it fosters personality and social development. Children are very impressionable during their formative years, and children’s literature can help them develop into caring, intelligent and friendly people.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget observed that when students move from the pre-operational to the operational stage of cognitive development, they become less egocentric. Whereas students in preschool and kindergarten may be entirely focused on themselves, as students grow older they begin to take into account the feelings and viewpoints of others.

Being able to understand other people’s viewpoints and to not be selfish are important skills that must be nurtured in children, since harmonious interactions and fulfilling relationships require an understanding of the feelings and viewpoints of others. Children’s literature can foster social development by encouraging students to accept other people and their differences, develop relationships with people and encourage social contact.

Based on psychologists Jean Piaget and Vygotsky’s development theories, a child needs to be exposed to developmentally appropriate (age appropriate) reading in order for learning to occur; and in order for literacy development to occur, a child must read. Therefore, a child must be exposed to literature that is suitable for them based on their abilities.

Children’s literature is valuable in providing an opportunity to respond to literature, as well as cultural knowledge, emotional intelligence and creativity, social and personality development and literature history to students across generations. Exposing children to quality literature can contribute to the creation of responsible, successful and caring individuals.

Enhancing confidence

As students get older, the set-texts become more complex and demanding. The information in the text also places a greater emphasis on higher level thinking and prior knowledge. Specifically matching texts to the learners’ interests, prior knowledge and reading abilities was found to be essential in heightening motivation, enhancing confidence, and developing and applying specific reading comprehension strategies. Introducing children to early literature braces students for such demands.

Conversely, delays or failure in introducing children to literary appreciation have far-reaching ramifications. First is the misplaced notion, self-defeating mentality that reading should only be done for purposes of exams, as opposed to a self-development tool. This is sickening, to say the least.

Besides slow or delayed cognitive development, individuals who are not introduced to early literary appreciation tend to be socially awkward and maladjusted, lacking in empathy, shallow in their reasoning and dogmatic in their thinking. They are wont to struggle in terms of their communication skills, have a narrow world view and lack attention to detail.

Competencies such as speed reading, comprehension skills, critical thinking skills et cetera, developed as a result of early introduction to literary appreciation would almost guarantee easy, faster and better understanding and even mastery of other subjects and skills. The benefits of introducing the young ones to early reading and literary appreciation are innumerable and far outweigh the pitfalls, if any.

[The writer is an IB educator. [email protected]]


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