“Reading books is necessary …”

by Dr Eliane Perret, special education (remedial) and psychologist

“… Stupidity shall not kill you.” This is how a poem – which is found on many internet sites – begins, which is intended to show children the importance of reading books. Even if the rest of the poem is a matter of taste, it nevertheless points to the importance of reading for the individual and for society as a whole. – Five hundred years ago since the invention of printing made reading, and with-it education, accessible to wider circles of the population. Until then, books and documents were copied by hand. In Europe, this was mostly done in the scriptoria of monasteries, where monks and nuns took on this demanding task and created handcrafted gems. So, how important are books and what is their significance for reading today?

 “When will you read to us today?”

It is just before lunch. The students in a middle school class sit quietly at their desks and listen intensely while the teacher reads to them. “Do you speak chocolate?” is the promising title.1 While the same children often find it difficult to concentrate, they are now very attentive. The story of a friendship that is burdened with some stumbling blocks, but also looks at current world events, captivates them. Behaviours are described and exemplified which they can identify with, which they want to make their own and from which they can orient themselves. Reading aloud leads the class into a shared world. It is not only intellectual, but also social or emotional experiences that connect them henceforth. So, it is comprehensible that they don’t want the daily reading to be cancelled.

Reading aloud? With older Children or even teenagers? 

Let’s start with the younger children. Fortunately, for many parents and grandparents, looking at picture books and reading stories together with their children and grandchildren is still part of the routine today. Through this they begin to discover the world together providing a situation to ask all their questions. Giving undivided attention, goodwill and security in cosy surroundings and diving into a story together awakens curiosity and strengthens the feeling of emotional connection. 
  But that’s not all! Studies show that two-year-old children who look at picture books and reading aloud together regularly speak twice as many words as children of the same age who do not have this opportunity. Their vocabulary is expanded and the formation of sentences and different forms of language are internalised. They expand their range of expressing themselves and communicating with their fellow human beings. By reading aloud and looking at books, children improve their stamina, become more creative and improve their memory and ability to concentrate. Especially at this age, children are also very receptive to little poems and rhymes that help them discover the rhythm of language. The books by Susanne Meier-Stöcklin are a treasure trove for this.2 When looking at a book together, a child receives many learning impulses that no TV programmes, tablet games and smartphone apps can provide. In this way, children develop a positive emotional relationship with books at an early age, which usually lasts a lifetime. This is the best foundation for a good education. 
  Unfortunately, many parents stop reading aloud when a child can read by himself. While this is also important and to be supported, it in no way replaces reading aloud. Older children also appreciate it when you read a book together and trade at reading aloud to each other. 

How do I “get” my child to read?

In conversations with parents, reading is always a topic. They wish their children would read more. Digital media takes up too much time for some of them. However, the opportunity to entice them to read is still there. We tried it out in our school with children of all ages. Inspired by another school, we started the Project 15x15.3 Fifteen days of reading for fifteen minutes each. However, we did not want to have each pupil read a book of their own choice but created our own variation and read a book to them class by class. Once a day, a pupil walked through the school building with the triangle at an unexpected moment and announced that everything should now be put aside. The reading time began; it became quiet in the school building. 
  The response from the pupils was positive and after that in several classes, reading aloud was integrated into the schedule.

Why not in the family too? 

Schedule reading aloud into the daily family routine, even for older children? One mother told me that for years it has been a ritual for them to lounge on the sofa with her two sons, who are now pre-adolescents. One on her left, the other on her right, to read a book together (and sometimes fall asleep comfortably). I was amazed, as I knew from her son that he was not very fluent in reading. On the other hand, I had already noticed that he had a good vocabulary and could grasp and understand the meaning of what he read very well, both intellectually and emotionally. A skill he had certainly acquired in his family reading sessions. This would not have been possible solely through everyday conversation. 

Big and small

In another reading project, we formed daily reading partnerships between older and younger students for a fortnight. It was not difficult to get the older students to look at a picture book, read a story or read a book together with the younger children. The reading partners were carefully paired. For example, a shy older pupil took on the task of getting to know the letters with a little girl with learning difficulties. We were amazed at how patiently and unerringly she took on this task. A pupil who usually caused a lot of trouble in his class had no trouble keeping his little whirlwind, who often provoked him, in line. From then on, when they met in the school building, it was normal for them to greet each other in a friendly manner. Wouldn’t this also be a good idea to implement this in the family setting? 

What does your “hero” look like?

Of course, high-quality films also have their justification and include ways to appeal to the viewer and to address him in terms of content and emotion. (I always have a packet of tissues with me at the cinema!) Reading aloud and reading a book, however, requires a high level of other activity. The thoughts and feelings expressed in the text have to be transformed into inner images by the reader. This trains the imagination and empathy to a great extent. The readers are asked to shoot an inner film. For inexperienced readers, a clarifying conversation is often helpful, and the level of the reading text must be carefully adjusted. Where is the story set? What is happening? Who is featured? It was an exhilarating situation when I once asked my students how they would imagine the “hero” of the story. All the variations of hair, eye and skin colours, other physical features and clothing came together – determined by each child’s imagination. 
  An impressive literary example of the power of these inner images may come from Ernest Hemingway. The story goes that he had made a bet with some of his writing friends. They had insinuated that he was incapable of describing a story in six words. He surprised them with the sentence: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. With this, he elicited – if the anecdote actually originated with him – not only from his friends at the time a story that was shaped against the background of personal experiences and adventures. Or what goes through your mind?

Entering into an inner dialogue

Part of a deeper reading is to get involved in the perspective and feelings of other people and to enter into an inner dialogue with them. We empathise with them and experience what it means to be desperate or happy. We enter strange worlds and experience things that were previously closed to us in our lives, or we can identify and make the experience of not being alone with our experiences and feelings. Reading includes the possibility to get a first insight into foreign cultures and countries, which is often more authentic than today’s commercial tourism offers. For example, the students who listen to Cas Lester’s book being read to them learn about the situation of refugees from Syria. Mehrnousch Zaeri-Esfahani4 tells them how she came from Iran to Germany on arduous paths and found a new home. Judith Hohnhold, with a simplified version of Karl Bruckner’s world-famous book for young people, has made it possible even for less experienced readers to learn about the fate of Sadako Sasaki, who survived the first atomic bomb attack in history on her hometown of Hiroshima seemingly unscathed.5 One enters the world of the other and returns enriched. This can help us build a bridge to our fellow human beings around the world – a bridge that can sustain us later in life.
  Unfortunately, this ability to empathise has declined considerably over the last 40 years, especially since the turn of the millennium, as Sherry Turkle, a renowned researcher at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), has noted in her studies. One connection is assumed to be that many people are constantly on the move online, which prevents face-to-face encounters and creates interpersonal distance. But doesn’t this already start with the fact that reading good books is given too little space, not only among children but also among adults?

Reading is more than reading technique

In the world of today’s teaching materials, the reading process has a high priority. Curriculum 21 dissects it into the individual parts and formulates corresponding competencies. It is about better reading techniques, reading for comprehension, etc., and optimising the reading circuits in the brain. Do we want to reduce reading to that? Or would we rather take Olga Meyer’s idea, whose books for children and young people have helped to shape generations. According to Meyer: “The world with its highly developed technology, in which the child is placed today, can certainly arouse his interest, but never warm his heart, give him the security he needs for his inner development.”6 And for this we must give our children the opportunity: To love reading; a precious tool that will accompany them on their way. This is how we grow people, who our society and every other society desperately needs. This requires more than digital reading programmes that test the appropriate skills with the hollow promise that this will optimise career opportunities.

… it is a cultural technique

I hope I have made it clear: Reading enables people to communicate in a sophisticated way and to educate themselves. But not only that; in reading, man forms his personality. He gains insight into the world of his fellow human beings and learns “to see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another,” as Alfred Adler expressed it. This allows us to see other ways of interacting with each other. But what happens to children who are never confronted with the thoughts and feelings that other people have? – Beyond the fate of the individual, we must also include the whole human family. Reading opens up the possibility of understanding larger contexts that determine social life. It lays the foundations for free thinking and decision-making. This is the path to becoming a responsible citizen and thus the basis of every democracy.  •

1 Lester, Cas. Sprichst du Schokolade? (Do you speak chocolate?) Arsedition. 2018. EAN 9783845829241
2 See author’s website. www.stoecklin-meier.ch
3 vgl. dazu www.condorcet.ch. Pichard, Alain. Leseförderung: Das Projekt 15×15. (Promoting reading: the 15×15 project.)
4 Zaeri-Esfahani, Mehrnousch. 33 Bogen und ein Teehaus.  (33 bows and a teahouse.) Peter Hammer-Verlag. 2018. ISBN 978-3-7795-0522-8
5 Hohnhold, Judith. Sadako. Ein Wunsch aus tausend Kranichen. (Sadako. A wish made of a thousand cranes.) Thienemann-Esslinger Verlag GmbH. ISBN 978-3-8489-2099-0
6 Meyer, Olga. Olga Meyer erzählt aus ihrem Leben. (Olga Meyer talks about her life.) Rascher-Verlag Zürich-Stuttgart

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