22 February 2012

The pleasure of books: how Spot the dog inspired a family reading project

Last year I got a bit of a shock when I tried reading Who’s There, Spot? – one of those lift-the-flap books – with a class of seven year-olds in Borneo: they went mad, surging towards the book with grabbing hands as though they had never seen paper thus configured. I was delighted by their enthusiasm until it dawned on me how seldom they must be read to, and then I felt pretty sad (not to mention fearful for poor old Spot, who I’m sure would have cowered under the same flap for the rest of the lesson had he been able to).

A wearying selection of moral tales
and not much else
And then I started to notice other things. There’s no bookshop or newsagent at Kuching airport. There’s no fiction section in the state library. ‘Bedtime’ and ‘story’ do not collocate here, and school storytelling exists only to communicate moral values. In short, nobody reads for the love of reading. People read to pass a test, or follow a recipe, or find out whether the copper wire thief in the next town has been arrested yet.

Given that the main purpose of my job here in Borneo is to improve primary teaching and learning, and that there is a proven link between reading for pleasure and overall academic achievement, what to do? Of course I think kids should read. Books were one of the greatest pleasures of my childhood, and they remain so in adulthood. But is it (a) possible and (b) ethical to attempt to impose the culture of recreational reading so prevalent in England on pupils here? Or, conversely, is it (a) patronising and (b) irresponsible not to?

Although it’s a bit of a minefield, I’ve decided next month to launch a pilot project in one of my schools to encourage family reading. As a starting point, I’m using a LearnEnglishFamily (LEF) tool designed by the British Council which, whilst appearing clear and comprehensive on the whole, leaves me with a number of reservations.

First, there just aren’t enough affordable, engaging books for children here. Libraries in the five schools I work with are chronically understocked and range from averagely uninspiring to hideously dull. What are we going to use the get the kids’ interest? Imported books are available in the city, but at prices beyond the reach of most families; the annual second-hand book fair is not until August; and making our own books, in any significant quantities anyway, could turn out to be just as costly and time-consuming as ordering a stack from Amazon.

Little wonder the kids don't bother with the 'library'
Second, I have no idea how we’re going to get the parents into the school, except perhaps with the promise of curry puffs, whose efficacy as bait has been proven time and again. Optional briefings on other academic matters are poorly attended and a lot of parents, I suspect, might be intimidated because of their own (real or perceived) lack of skills. What I really need is to find a passionate teacher-advocate from the same kampung (see footnote) to act as project co-ordinator, but this is likely to be tricky since a lot of the teachers don’t seem to read for pleasure either.

Thirdly it seems, though I may be wrong, that the only real success story with this tool to date has been in a Tamil school in Kuala Lumpur, a very different kettle of fish to Borneo, and it’s not exactly clear why it worked so well there but not at the other nine schools in peninsular Malaysia where it was trialled. I’d guess that parental literacy levels in both English and L1, as well as other social and political factors, had a lot to do with it, but without any serious inquiry into why just this one school ran with it so enthusiastically I don’t know how to replicate their success.

Anyway. I just posted this by way of introduction as I’ll no doubt come back and blog about the project later, when it has either become the second LEF success story or failed so spectacularly that I am deported. Whether you have any experience of this sort of thing or not (family reading projects, not being deported from Malaysia) I’d love, as always, to hear your thoughts and advice.

Note: Kampung roughly translates as village, but not quite. A kampung is a place, but also an extended kinship network with a clearly defined hierarchy.


  1. OK, that photo of the library shelf left my heart in tiny little shards all over my desk. So first I've got to clean that up. Is there anything my students and I might be able to do to help you out with the book issue? Maybe I could hit JALT up and see if we couldn't gather second hand books and maybe cover the shipping expenses as well to send them off to you. Don't want to be too pushy. If you're interested, tweet me and I'll put the word out. I know we've got a lot of slumbering books here in Japan that might like to be read. And you don't even have to send any curry puffs in return.

  2. Hi Kevin - sorry, I've only just checked back on this post and noticed your comment. If you think there might be books going unused then obviously that would be AMAZING to receive them! I think the pupils would also be really interested in the idea of them coming from other kids in Japan (which is second only to Korea in terms of cool here). Maybe we could link them up beyond this too with letters - no internet connection in the sticks, annoyingly - and photos? I don't know...but it's a fantastically generous offer that I'm really not going to turn down. If it becomes a hassle in any way then please don't feel bad about changing your mind but if it's possible, wow! You are an awesome human being :)

  3. Good news over here in Osaka. Talked with my principle and he thinks starting up some kind of exchange with your program around collecting and sending books to Borneo is fantastic. And we discussed expanding the program on our side to include basic book repair and a donation drive to collect the money to send the books off to your schools.

    On my side, I need to put together a short report clearly stating the goals of the program.I was wondering if you could do me a favor and provide me with some information about your program and, if possible, some sort of letter which we could show to any interested parent about who will be receiving the books? Thanks. K.

  4. Ooooh gosh how exciting! Thank you so much for doing this, it's BRILLIANT. I'll be in touch on Twitter to get your email and then hopefully send you over some stuff this weekend :)