Guest Post: Dennis Wesley on Children’s Literature: The Challenges of Encouraging Children to Read

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Reading is no longer the only form in which children explore stories. The video and multimedia formats have been growing increasingly popular in this context. 

Nonetheless, reading remains one of the best ways to help children develop their cognitive, intellectual, and emotional skills. 

As is almost universally recognized, this is because reading for children is more than just a way to explore stories. 
Besides, children’s literature is also extremely diverse: it ranges from simple books with extensive illustrations, images, or pictorial narratives to fairly complex works that might require additional effort on children’s part. Yet both types of works sometimes tend to have great literary merit. As a result, the diversity of children’s literature is also perhaps its greatest strength; more on this shortly.

Children’s literature also debunks the notion that books that rely on images and pictorial narratives are not complex. On the contrary, illustrated works are sometimes substantially complex, and more often than not, the illustrations also help children appreciate the complexities of the work. Therefore, in addition to developing their literacy skills, reading also enables children to explore the vagaries and complexities of the human condition.

Videocy Versus Literacy

The rapid emergence of the video format as a learning tool in early education and as an entertainment option often worries parents and teachers. Some of these concerns are indeed deeply troubling: for instance, some critics use the term ‘videocy‘ to refer to the ubiquity of video technology in our lives. Videocy is also associated with the growing tendency to reduce nuanced information and data to snippets and bite-sized summaries that typically ignore or miss key aspects of complex matters. The larger argument here is that videocy has endangered our ability to think critically and deal with ambiguities and nuances. This is particularly worrying because critical thinking requires practice, and videocy has made it difficult for both adults and children to practice critical thinking.

Editor’s own image

Though reading is becoming more and more endangered today, encouraging children to read is immensely doable. At the same time, it must be said that the video format does not necessarily compromise our critical thinking ability. With moderation and control, adults and children can enjoy the richness of the format, which also has its fair share of benefits. The key then is to help and encourage children to find time for reading in a culture that now seems to mainly incentivize watching videos. Since the video format is here to stay, it is also futile to frame the issue in terms of ‘reading versus videos’: it is important that children become discerning consumers of videos, and indeed of all media (including the written word), but this shouldn’t come at the cost of forcing children to read.

The Pitfalls of Forcing Children to Read

This influential work on the effects of reading highlights that forcing children to read constitutes a highly unrewarding and stressful experience for them, which can also be detrimental in the long run. The work claims that this typically leads to ‘less involvement in reading-related activities.’ In effect, forcing children to read tends to create an aversion for the activity. Forcing can also take the form of pressurizing children to read difficult materials. If, for instance, a child seems to be below the prescribed standard of reading competency for a given age group or grade level, forcing or expecting them to read at that standard would be counterproductive. Worse, it is likely to be a deeply unpleasant experience for children. This is an instance where parents and teachers should capitalize on the diversity of children’s literature as well as the diversity of reading experiences. In fact, as we will see in what follows, the diversity of children’s literature and the inherent diversity of reading experiences are especially helpful in encouraging children to not just read but to do so in a fairly stress-free manner.

First, what does it mean to say that reading is a diverse experience? Simply put, it means that different children relate to different things in a book. Besides, some children benefit from reading a book all by themselves, whereas other children might prefer to discuss their reading experiences–be it with other children, or parents and teachers.

Even if they are reading for entertainment, some children might be unable to appreciate a book without guidance or some additional support. This is not to be frowned upon. Indeed, this is not just an opportunity for parents to bond with their children but also a way to show that they take their children’s concerns seriously. That they are willing to converse and discuss with their children. More importantly, doing so also enables parents and children to deal with any stigma that might be attached to the idea of seeking assistance. Additionally, when children say that they don’t understand something, this is usually an example of higher-order thinking. The ability to realize that one hasn’t grasped a concept well enough is a mark of critical thinking and intellectual honesty; this is not to be shunned. In other words, reading competency is not always a measure of children’s intelligence; it is perfectly normal for children to be intelligent and find reading challenging at the same time.

Dealing With Negative Tags Surrounding Children’s Literature

Although schools are now trying to rescue terms such as ‘reading competency’ and ‘letter knowledge’ from the oppressive spirit of cutthroat competition, these terms still do have the tendency to make children and parents feel inadequate and inferior. However, the internet has made it easier for parents and teachers to find a wide range of reading materials to suit children’s reading competencies. Consider, for instance, some canonical works of children’s literature, such as Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, and The Little Prince. Though they all address complex matters, their stylistic approaches could not be more different. The prose in The Little Prince is sparse but deeply engaging and thought-provoking, and it also features some wonderful watercolor illustrations by the author. On the other hand, Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies are widely recognized as prime examples of dystopian literature.

It is no surprise that more children tend to find these two works more challenging than The Little Prince. This is of course not to say that the latter isn’t as valuable a literary work as the other two. In fact, the condescension toward The Little Prince for its simple style lays bare another troubling tendency: ‘children’s literature’ is sometimes used as a pejorative, driven by the assumption that it is not critical and presents an inaccurate, fairy-tale-like view of the world. In other words, it is seen as a source of empty enjoyment, not as a particularly good way for children to develop language skills, critical thinking skills, or emotional intelligence. Negative tags surrounding children’s literature, such as ‘juvenile’ or ‘uncritical,’ might prevent parents, teachers, and caregivers from introducing or encouraging children to read. Worse still, in some cases, these negative tags might even urge anxious adults to force children to read material beyond their reading competency.

A good way to fight this tendency is to remind ourselves that children’s literature is also deeply useful for adult ESL learners; since the writing is usually simple and easy to follow, ESL learners are better able to develop an understanding and appreciation of the nuances of the language. That children’s literature is mostly written to enable ease of understanding doesn’t necessarily mean that it is ‘simplistic’ or ‘reductive.’ Claiming that something is patronizing merely because it employs a simple style is inaccurate and unfair. Conversely, something that is written in a simple style does not automatically make it children’s literature. In other words, not every simple work is suitable for children, and children do not necessarily have to read works classified as easy or simple. Besides, what is simple for one child might be complex for another.

To help children navigate difficult texts, parents and teachers can now choose from a wide range of introductory and supplementary study materials online without worrying about diluting or oversimplifying these works. Most of these are free and accessible via a simple online search. Encouraging children to read in this era of videocy is essential to enhance and diversify their learning experience. And helping children read better might be the best way to do so, especially since this approach focuses on making reading an enjoyable experience.

Dennis Wesley is an independent researcher. His interests include STEM and Humanities education, especially interdisciplinary practices and methods. You can follow his personal blog here.

August 28, 2021 at 07:00PM DimbutNice