My experience in teaching literature in English over the years has revealed that most of our children in Africa do not have a reading culture. I have witnessed many students at university level having difficulties in reading a few prescribed texts covering novels, poems and plays. The ways in which they struggle to read and study literary texts points to a poor reading background in their formative years. A practical example is when it appears like a punishment when students are given a course reading list comprising these texts: The Other Presence by Sifiso Nyathi; Jock of the Bushveld by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; Macbeth by William Shakespeare; The Colour Purple by Alice Walker; The Lion and the Jewel by Wole Soyinka; and Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. These are some of the books that have exciting stories that contain many lessons for our children, yet they struggle to read and comprehend them. Against this background, and to promote a reading culture, the University of Namibia and Cardiff University launched an annual writing competition for children’s stories written by anyone in Namibia and Wales. The target group for the stories is children between 7 and 15 years. Interested writers can get full competition rules at email@example.com. Riding on the success wave of the first competition that attracted twenty-seven children stories, the two universities are optimistic that more writers in the two countries will participate in the second edition of the competition whose deadline is 30 April 2021. The results of this competition will be more reading materials in the market for children.
Studies have shown that cultivating a reading culture in children at an early age has many benefits and advantages for children as they grow up. As the saying goes, ‘catch them young’. It is imperative that if we want our children to read when they grow up, we must introduce them to reading stories at an early age. When children read stories or books, they learn more not only about the environment around them, but also about new places and new people. They get to know about their own culture and different cultures through reading books. Children’s literature can be used by parents and teachers to teach and reinforce moral values that children must uphold in society. They learn what is good and bad from reading stories. Also, parents and guardians must always bear in mind that reading different stories enhances children’s cognitive development. As children interact with the stories they are reading, they begin to form their own opinions and judgements about the characters and events they encounter in the stories. In other words, they develop their critical thinking skills at an early age without sometimes the assistance of parents and teachers.
At an early age, children learn to judge, evaluate and justify some actions characters take in the stories. By engaging in these analyses, consciously or unconsciously, children develop their argumentation skills at an early age. When they read prescribed texts from primary school to university level, they just adjust their critical thinking to the dictates of the levels. It has been found that children who begin reading books at an early age perform better in literature at school and tertiary level than the ones who begin reading texts at university level only because they are prescribed for a certain course or module. Most of our children in rural schools and disadvantaged schools do not have libraries to promote a reading culture in children. These children are negatively affected when they go to university because their reading and critical thinking skills do not match those of students who were exposed to reading books at an early stage. So, when students struggle to read books like the examples given above, it is important to check their background before condemning them. In such cases, it is not their fault that they cannot read as expected of their age.
In their study titled “Early readers and academic success”, Marie Leahy and Nicole Fitzpatrick (2017) found that “children who lack a strong foundation of language awareness and literacy skills early in life are more likely to fall behind in school leading to less academic success.” In the same vein, in their study “The sooner, the better: Early reading to children”, Frank Niklas, Caroline Cohrssen and Collette Tayler (2016) found that “the ability to read and write letters, with comprehension, is the basis for success in formal education.” The aforementioned studies buttress the point that when children read stories and books at an early age, their opportunities of succeeding in formal education are higher than those who do not read or do so at an advanced age.
Reading at an early age fosters creativity and imagination that are important skills throughout the life of an individual. Creativity, imagination and intelligence are collocates, that is, they are concepts that occur together; you cannot talk of one of these concepts without implying the other concepts. There is a strong relationship among these concepts. Early reading also promotes the development of emotional intelligence and self-confidence in children. They need these attributes to interact well with other members of society in life. Reading at an early age improves children’s vocabulary and enhances the pragmatic use of language in a variety of situations. Children who read stories and books experience words and sentences in action in different contexts. They learn to use the words and sentences they get from reading in their own situations. In others words, children acquire, adopt and adapt the structures and skills of the language as they are used in the stories and books they read.
Parents, grandparents and guardians out there, I beg you to buy a book every month for your child or children. Stop buying expensive toy guns for your children and grandchildren as these strengthen a gun culture that is violent. Adopt a book- per-month policy and cultivate a reading culture in your young ones. With twelve books for your young ones every year, you will steadily build a home library for your loved ones. Start today, visit a bookshop today.