By Grace Gathoni, Research Assistant, APHRC
“Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his needs, is good for him.” Maya Angelou
As children, we often heard the adults in our lives tell us that we need to read more. Reading in that context usually meant studying for exams. School-going children and young adults in colleges and universities typically study endless notes in preparation for exams and leave no room for leisure reading. Once students no longer have to read for exams, they hardly pick up a book to read for pleasure. Many times in our homes or even in social gatherings, troublesome children are handed phones by their parents to shut them up. Why not give them a book?
According to a 2013 study done by the African Economist, Kenya literacy rates stand at 85%, which is fourth in the continent after Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa. However, this has not translated into a strong reading culture in our homes and schools. Reading can be a form of extra-curricular activity for children at home and in school. However, extra-curricular activities in most schools usually consist of sports, drama or music – and that is only for those students lucky enough or willing to participate in these activities. Among households in informal
communities who can barely afford to meet their basic needs, acquisition of reading materials for their children is low in their list of priorities.
Consequently, children and young people engage in other recreational activities like social media, watching football and playing video games. A Programme for International Student Assessment report suggests that reading for pleasure declines as students advance through school. It is essential that parents nurture a reading culture in their children and help them sustain it as they grow.
Reading has numerous benefits. It improves our vocabulary, acts as a source of entertainment for people of all ages, enhances our self-confidence as we become more knowledgeable, supports the development of critical thinking and enhances creativity and self-expression. Young people who view reading as enjoyable are much more likely to continue reading into their adulthood and enjoy these benefits. Given the aforementioned benefits of reading, what can be done to strengthen the reading culture in our young people?
The first point of learning is at home and thereby, the family plays a pivotal role in promoting learning and a reading culture. With the growing literacy rates, it means many people to a certain degree are able to read. Traditionally, families played a critical role in telling their history and other occurrences through stories. Storytelling in the African culture has been widely studied, with recent evidence suggesting this to be fizzling out very fast due to modernization. A lot of the cultural and ethnic history is documented in writing, and without the reading, this can only mean forgetting our cultural origins and its related myths.
Reading is hampered by lack of access to reading materials (written texts) in many households, especially in Africa. Parents and caregivers should make time to read to their children and encourage them to start reading at the earliest possible age. A study conducted by African Population and Health Research Center among low-income urban communities in 2015, found that children from households where the parents are actively involved in their children’s
education improve their learning outcomes. Despite the existence of studies on reading culture in our context, anecdotal evidence suggests that even in households that can easily afford reading materials, they hardly read.
Secondly, there is a need for attitudinal change. The thinking by many that education ends with the formal schooling is misplaced. As noted earlier, reading promotes cognitive development as well as in the acquisition of vocabularies. If individuals could acknowledge such benefits and begin to build a reading culture, would only mean improved learning outcomes for our children. While this may take time, it is anticipated with time it will be transmitted to the next generations and potentially a sustained reading culture will emerge.
Thirdly community-based organizations can put up resource centers where children and young people can access reading materials. These centers provide an environment where learners can enhance their reading skills, receive after-school support and learn about their individual interests outside of school. Moreover, learning institutions like schools, colleges and universities should set aside time for leisure reading and provide a wide range of genres for the learners. This will encourage them to explore reading materials besides their classroom notes and enable them to find interesting materials. Library lessons should be encouraged in schools so learners can access interesting reading materials both for academic and leisure purposes. Book clubs could also be an effective approach to encourage reading where learners openly discuss what they are reading and borrow materials from each other.
Policy makers and other relevant authorities should emphasize the benefits of reading for pleasure. For instance, in schools they could support teachers in providing opportunities for leisure reading in classrooms. Learners can also be encouraged to discuss or write essays on the books they are reading. Further, authorities should set aside reading areas in communities. These could be accessible public libraries or mobile libraries in rural and informal settlements. Policies that encourage schools to acquire reading materials outside the required course books should also be put in place.