It was the essayist and poet, Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who wrote that reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. Imagine a world with no reading – can you imagine living in this century and not being able to read?
When I was about three years old, my family used to tease me for begging my father to paint the water tanks on our farm “the same pretty colours” as I saw on the tanks outside the roadhouse we passed regularly on our trips between the mine where we lived and the farm where we spent weekends. It was only once I could read that those ‘pretty colours’ turned out to be the logo for Castle Beer! No wonder my father preferred to paint the farm tanks plain silver!
We once employed a casual gardener in Mafikeng. He was talkative, filled with energy and would sometimes contribute plants he had found growing on the mounds of rubbish tips that abounded in the fledgling suburb we lived in. This man was canny and meticulous about money – yet he was unable to read a word in Setswana, English or Afrikaans, nor was he able to write his name. He had never attended school, you see. I often thought about how bewildering it must have been for him to enter a supermarket or to find his way around the administrative aspects of his life.
During my years of teaching, from pre-primary to university, and in both government and private schools, I have come across young people who are reluctant readers. These children tend to shy away from reading aloud because they cannot pronounce words; have to mumble over words the meaning of which is a mystery to them; or lose their place because their eyes are unused to following the line of print. They read haltingly as they decipher the pattern of each word in turn; or they read in a deadpan fashion because they have not grasped the concept of how to read dialogue, or to emphasise certain words, or even to play with their voices to make what they read both more interesting and more meaningful for those listening to them.
Some of these children will never heft a book from choice. They will not feel its weight, smell its pages, or gauge the possibilities of what lies between the covers. For some of these children even reading a magazine article remains daunting.
I once taught a Grade Eight girl who proudly brought her Kindle to the lessons set aside for reading. It took her a month to advance ten pages and she was taken aback when I noticed. A matric boy, who loved hunting, kept renewing a library book on that subject for three months because it took him that long to read the first two chapters. By the end of the term he assured me that he had read “all the captions of all the photographs”. Indeed.
If reading is to be exercise to the mind, then it is a skill that requires practice. The element in this becoming a successful exercise for the mind is that it should be enjoyable. When we enjoy what we read, we unwittingly develop the skills needed to tackle ever more demanding texts, or to delve into the intricacies of the written expressions in a variety of genres. Reading skills underpin the success of studying content subjects such as history, geography and life sciences at school and facilitate learning throughout our lives.
This has been brought home to me whilst engaged in reading examination papers for a Grade Ten pupil. The Business Study questions were simply expressed and so, once I had read through the paper for her, she only required me to reread the two longer questions at the end. The English paper took its toll: I read and reread the comprehension passage, the article to be summarised, and the two seen poems at least three times each. She listened intently, following the words on her script while I read aloud. She asked me to reread some of the language-usage questions too and wrote until even her extra time was up. Her comment afterwards was that during my reading of Mending Wall by Robert Frost, she felt she could really understand for the first time what had happened to the wall and how differently the two farmers felt about it. “It’s how you read it,” she said by way of explanation.
I thought the Mathematical Literacy paper would be a cinch. The first three questions were and I began to wonder if I was superfluous, merely keeping her company in this isolated venue. Then came the three longer questions. They were not difficult by any means, but contained information that needed to be assimilated and digested before it could be applied to working out the running costs of a chocolate factory for three months, and the quantities of ingredients required to make a hundred slabs of chocolate. Another question required her to work out which option of tea bags would be the cheapest for Sipho to purchase. She could do this, but only after the verbal contextualisation of the problem had been read to her – as one would read a story.
As I have done in similar situations, I asked the girl how she felt she benefited from having the examination scripts being read to her. “They make more sense to me,” she answered. “The way you read makes everything seem more real to me somehow.” I take no credit for this.
“Do you ever read for pleasure?”
“Not if I can avoid it,” she replied. “I’d rather spend time chatting to my friends here or on Facebook.”
Indeed. Like so many others, she has denied herself the pleasure of hefting a book from the shelf of the school library, breathing in the smell of the printed page, and being transported to another world far removed from where she is. That vital exercise of reading for the mind is missing – hopefully she, and others like her – will embrace it sometime in the future simply for the fun of it.