By Margie Paton-Ash
Herschel Senior School in Cape Town in the Western Cape is still celebrating the opening of a room specially designed to promote reading.
At prize-giving, head Stuart West described how a beautiful, light-filled glass classroom with magnificent views, known as The Hub and completed in October 2015, had refocused the entire school. He said: The Hub has been… transformed into a modern and inviting reading room to promote that foundational love, competence and comfort of reading for pleasure. The language teachers will take classes in there, just to read. Girls who have study periods or lunch breaks will go there, just to read. Staff will slip in there, just to read. It will be a wonderful Hub of quietness and comfort that invites all to snuggle up with a good book and read.
Literacy the key to successful learning
The renewed focus on reading as a core skill underpinning the curriculum at Herschel is a response to increasing concerns about the amount of reading children are doing in the digital age. This is highlighted by several studies of the reading habits of young people. A 2014 survey of the reading habits of Herschel’s students from grades 5–11 revealed that the majority of girls were so busy during the term that they did not have much time to read. Most of their reading took place during the holidays.
It cannot be denied that the introduction of technology enhances and enriches the learning experience by linking the child, at a click of a button, to rich information – not only in the form of text but also videos, articles, discussion groups and images. However, the digital age has come at a price, as it appears to have an impact on reading habits. Research suggests that digital devices, with their multimodal capabilities, have changed the way children spend their time and, as a result, the way they read. Today’s child spends more time online, reading short bursts of text associated with social media. These studies indicate that reading overwhelming amounts of information on the internet online encourages more skimming behaviour and readers read more quickly and, as a result, less deeply.
Meanwhile, literacy is still at the centre of all learning and for now, in many quarters, books still remain key to the learning experience. In South Africa, literacy has become an urgent concern in the state system and is linked to South African pupils’ persistently low performance in academic achievement. Research illuminates the links made to poor results in literacy and the lack of books in South African schools. Fortunately, many South African independent schools do have libraries stocked with books, so that an important element in ensuring a literate student body is being met.
We must meet modern needs
Yet, there are concerns, even in our well-resourced schools. These are summed up by a head of a primary school, who noted:
… [C]hildren are not reading like they used to, and what we have tried to do with the library is to encourage them to take books out so that we can get them reading again… We are finding now that [their] maths is weak because they don’t understand what they are reading and our children are struggling with writing exams because they don’t read. They don’t know how to read the questions and they don’t know how to interpret questions. Their comprehension is bad; their understanding of what they are reading.
His view is supported by several studies, which reveal that the most important predictor of academic success is the amount of time students spend reading. Reading for pleasure lays a foundation for higher levels of reading proficiency and fluency, because it builds:
• understanding and use of complex grammatical structures
• writing skills
• text comprehension.
In addition, studies show that reading proficiency positively impacts on performance in mathematics.
Children become better readers by reading. Likewise, children who read less often read slowly, without any enjoyment of the reading process, and are less likely to grow in their reading ability. This can create a vicious circle where poor readers remain poor readers.
Reading for academic success is not the only reason to encourage a habit of reading among the student body at Herschel. There is evidence that reading for pleasure has social and emotional consequences. Our girls are extremely busy during the term with extracurricular activities, as well as their academic commitments. This can result in high levels of stress among some of them. Teaching our students to develop a love of reading as a lifelong hobby and something to do to relax or distract could benefit them for life.
Furthermore, reading for pleasure enables a person to walk in someone else’s shoes in their imaginations and can result in developing empathy. A better insight into others as well as themselves is an additional benefit, as reading about other cultures, places, histories, religions, news and worldviews will ensure that our students become citizens of the world able to understand, empathise and interact with people.
A quiet nook
At Herschel, we have taken into account all the benefits of reading and designed a quiet space to encourage and develop the habit of reading. The Hub has enough comfortable furniture for a class of girls to read. The furnishings have been deliberately selected so that girls have enough personal space and others in the class cannot distract them as they lose themselves in a book. An attractive, diverse collection in the library supports this reading initiative. Teachers bringing a class for a reading period are also encouraged to bring a book and read, so as to model the practice to their classes. There is also space for girls to work. No talking is allowed and this rule is strictly enforced.
At Herschel, the importance of reading has been brought to the fore with the creation of a special space designed to encourage reading, especially reading for pleasure. By investing in a reading room, the strongest signal has been given to all on campus that reading is the heart of learning, and that developing a habit of reading has real academic and personal consequences.
Category: Autumn 2016