Building a Reading Culture and the Link to Improving Exam Performance: a Perspective

Previously published in the Daily Observer. Reprinted here as it seems timely in light of the Cushion Club and Wadadli Pen teaming up for a summer reading challenge.

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Recently, during an interview with a regional publication about the Wadadli Pen writing programme, I was asked about things people could do to support the literary arts. I spoke, of course, about the need for arts funding to run ongoing writing programmes and the like. But then the interviewer asked me a follow up that narrowed the scope of the question, and at the same time expanded it. What can the individual do? And what came immediately to mind was the simple act of encouraging a child to read, reading with and to a child; it can be your child, or it can be the child of someone else. It’s a simple act but that’s where it starts.

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Quite recently, I read an article, during the period of hand wringing that usually follows the release of the results of the standardized tests as we try to figure out why our kids are failing English or Math or Social Sciences. It seems we do this dance every year. And certainly it’s a dance not unique to us here in Antigua and Barbuda. Within the rhythm and sway of it, one of the things that jumped out was the aforementioned article in which the Education Minister explained that “There has been a decline as teachers become acclimatized to this new English syllabus.” It gave me pause and I wondered what was in this new syllabus that was so challenging, so I read on; and what I read seemed to suggest that while the structure had changed what was expected was the same, the ability to comprehend.

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I felt it at the tip of my tongue, like an overplayed song that everyone’s tired of hearing; we need to make reading a part of their everyday lifestyle. I really believe that the literary arts (imagining, reading, writing) is foundational to doing well not only in English but in the various subject areas, foundational to deciphering the puzzles that present themselves, foundational to thinking critically and creatively.

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It helps perhaps that I’ve always found reading fun so I didn’t have to be bribed or bullied into doing it, and so maybe it’s easy for me to say this, but I believe that reading is the key to us beginning to figure out how to create, imagine, comprehend, and articulate ideas. It begins with that book you first read upside down and the stories you invented because the pictures made sense even though the words didn’t yet, and the stories you made up to fill in the blanks when the tale left you hanging, all the while building your vocabulary, your competence and confidence with respect to the use of language, and your brain’s ability to unknot things and create new patterns.

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I was heartened, therefore, when I read a little further on in the story a comment attributed to an anonymous teacher who I really wished had acquiesced to having her/his name used because they made the point that links with what I’m saying here; that the real problem is that “children are not reading.”

Chadd Cumberbatch visits the Cushion Club2 Chief Librarian Dorothea Nelson 3

At this point, you’re thinking of all the parents working too many hours to make ends meet to have time to read to or with their kids, or too busy putting food on the table to put books on the shelves. And I feel you on that because I come from a world of scant resources myself and still live in a world where people are struggling to do too much with too little. But this is where we’ve got to get creative. I remember a parent once saying to me that because she’s at work all day she has no way of making sure that her son reads, no way of making sure that he doesn’t spend all the summer-long day watching TV, which, let’s face it, he probably did. I suggested to her that one way around that is to set the expectation. And no I’m not just talking about my mother’s trick of checking the TV for heat to make sure that we hadn’t been watching the Soaps after school, which we totally did (hey, I said I liked books, doesn’t mean I didn’t like TV too). But how about asking them to summarize what they’ve read that day, they don’t even have to write it down; it could just be a conversation, which is good for getting them to begin articulating how they feel about things. Kara Stevens, speaking about a Read Aloud programme she did at Villa School earlier this year, spoke about the step in the programme where the children were encouraged to react to the material, a process that could potentially build their speaking and writing skills, and get them thinking about broader social issues. So, encourage that conversation over dishes or dinner or while they’re helping you hang clothes on the line, whatever window your busy day allows; and if they didn’t read the book after all, well talk about the TV show you know they spent the time watching…after all TV shows (and no I’m not counting (Un)Reality shows here) are story-driven too.

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So that’s what I said in that interview about Wadadli Pen that writing begins with imagining and reading, and that one of the ways we can support the literary arts – and, I suspect, begin to put an end to the annual wringing of hands about our performance in not just language arts but other subject areas – is by creating a culture in which children are encouraged to read in the homes, in the community (why not start a Cushion Club in your village?), in the classroom (a la the drop-everything-and-read activity in some schools). It seems a frivolous thing to some, a weird thing even, an indulgence in a practical world, but it can be skill building and even fun, and not, as I say all the time about Wadadli Pen, only if you’re interested in becoming a writer.

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All pictures in this post are Cushion Club related except for the last two – one of which is me, reading from The Boy from Willow Bend and Musical Youth at the public library in Anguilla and at Hillside school in St. Martin. It goes without saying that (especially as these are pictures of children) you can link the post but not copy and past the pictures without permission…but I’m saying it anyway.

As with all content (words, images, other) on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight,  Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad!, and Musical Youth). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about WadadliPen and my books. You can also subscribe to and/or follow the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, with credit, are okay, lifting whole content (articles,  images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. And using any creative work without crediting the creator will open you up to legal action. Respect copyright.

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Filed under A & B Lit News Plus, A & B WRITINGS, Caribbean Plus Lit News, Literary Gallery, Wadadli Pen News

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