The wisdom of reading


I HAVE always been a person who reads a lot. Give me a free hour and you will find me reading. Even at the hairdresser's, I'll read through the hair-wash and the noise of the drier. 

Waiting for a doctor's appointment? You can be sure that I'll have a book or the day's newspaper with me. On days my daughter finishes school an hour later than me, I'll spend the intervening time at the town library. 

Because reading matters so much to me, I can't help feeling disappointed when my students tell me that they barely read. 

The excuse is that they have no time. This alone makes me lament over what education has come to these days. I'm talking about the average Malaysian student.  

I won't deny that many of our children love fiction and may read about Harry Potter's forays into wizardry over and over again. But the majority simply don't read – not even the newspapers.  

Pressed for time – going from home to school, to tuition and then back home to do loads of homework –our students will tell you that they barely have the time to breathe, let alone read. It distresses me as a teacher that a large, enthralling world of words and knowledge is lost to them.  

I remember that when I was young, I'd rather endure nagging and scolding by my mother than put down a book I was reading. Words didn't hurt me as much as losing the thread of a story I was immersed in.  

As I grew older, I became fond of burying my nose in encyclopaedias. I even liked the smell of old books. Later on I read books on chemistry, biology and physics – books that were there in the library but weren't our regular textbooks. 

As a Form Six teacher now, I have discovered that although many of the students want to be doctors, researchers, biotechnologists and what have you, they hardly read A-level textbooks, especially if they are in English. Neither do they follow recent discoveries and updates in the health columns that appear in our newspapers. 

Frankly, I'd be pleasantly taken aback if one of my students were to come up to me to say that he'd just read a full-length article on a science-related issue in a magazine, journal or newspaper. 

The reason they give for their lack of reading is two-fold. First, as I pointed out earlier, they say they simply don't have the time. Two, they have not gained enough proficiency in the English language to understand or enjoy reading the aforementioned books or articles. So, while I lament their loss, part of me empathises with them. 

For instance, in random surveys I conduct among my students, I usually find that about 75% of them go for tuition. One of the attractions of the tuition class is the provision of modules by the tuition teacher – booklets with extensive, ready-made notes or model answer scripts. 

If you haven't realised it before, you ought to by now, that the spoon-fed mentality of the Malaysian student thrives on such provisions. Woe betide the teacher who tries to make them think, hone their reading and comprehension skills, or behove them to learn the art of culling and making their own notes from reading a book!  

They will look aghast at you and remind you that an average paragraph found in a regular American Science textbook contains not one but many words, especially verbs and nouns, that they honestly don't recognise. 

How could I expect them to “waste” so much of their precious time looking up words in a dictionary? Wouldn't they be better off spending that time reading up and understanding (and don't forget, memorising) prepared notes and handouts? 

I'm talking about Form Six students – students who are now spending their 12th or 13th year in school. Pre-university students. The leaders of tomorrow.  

Yet, their constant plea to me is this: Could I please read up for them and make the necessary notes for them? Their job? Just read the notes and be prepared to regurgitate them for the examination! 

If they have a question not answered by a textbook in Malay, they ask me sweetly if I could look up the answer in one of the thick textbooks in English they know I can read better than them. 

When they say they really don't have the time to read, I believe them. Just take away their six hours at school and minus the time they spend going for tuition, doing homework, working on projects and tending to personal needs and, I bet you, there'll be no time left in the day.  

Overscheduled children – that's what most of us parents are living with today. My sixteen-year old daughter doesn't go for tuition but her homework alone is enough to be the last straw that breaks the camel's back. If she can find the time to relax, believe me, she'd rather read a romance novel than a textbook on physics or biology! 

So, how are we to bring up a generation of readers who appreciate reading the sciences in English?  

The student's professed lack of time to read is a real excuse rather than an imaginary one. Meanwhile, his starting block is a basic level of English language proficiency. This is definitely another crippling factor. 

At school, teachers who might like to propose a reading and comprehension hour will also be the first to tell you that the demands of having to finish a hefty syllabus on time nips any such notion in the bud.  

What is this vicious cycle we're propagating in school? For the student, it's too much to study in too little time, and for the teacher, it's too much to teach in too little time. So, how are we to generate interest in reading? 

The way I look at it, part of the answer lies in shifting our education system from an exam-oriented one to one where learning is for the true sake of learning. It would benefit both teachers and students tremendously if we could severely trim the syllabus and accord more time to letting them enjoy the act of teaching, reading and learning together. 

Teachers need more time if they are to use a multitude of channels to get their message across, or to help students develop reading skills. In today's syllabus-driven, rushing-to-get-material-covered system, there's simply too little time for this. 

I've written before on the tyranny of testing but if that stays, a lot of the good stuff about reading and genuine learning goes out of the window.  

We experienced teachers at the grass-root level know what we are talking about when we describe the grim reality that forms our students' mindset these days. Reading only to mug, and because they have to mug, is definitely not the ideal reading habit we ought to cultivate in our students. 

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