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How to raise a reader in a distracted world

In a world smitten by Twitter, TikTok and texting, to raise a reader, you need to be a reader

By Saba Karim Khan

Published: Thu 20 Jan 2022, 11:53 PM

When drawing up a catalogue of essentials for children to thrive, a bunch of usual suspects jump to mind: healthy eating, nurturing relationships, play-based learning, boundaries and routines. The one non-negotiable tool which doesn’t always make it to the list — despite being bombarded with it even before a child is born — are the indispensable benefits of raising a reader; allowing a child the luxury to wade in words; unleash their imaginations, pass through portals and enter the magical universe of stories. Why is it that despite the obvious and well-documented advantages attached to reading, we don’t prioritise it nearly enough? Why does reading — to us and our children — often appear a chore? Why does the transition from “you HAVE to read!” to “I choose to read” seem so laborious?

The culprits are many; however, two that seduce most successfully and detract from cultivating a reading habit among children are (i) technological lures and (ii) the lack of “reader” role models. As a mother of two girls, I’m guilty of both myself.

Technology evokes a strange tension; understandably, the pandemic has left parents with little option but to rely on devices more than usual — at some point in the past two years, everyone stopped tracking screen time. But it’s no secret that digital dependency yielded alarming results well before lockdown, despite some of technology’s benefits. Excessive patterns of games, apps, videos, tablets have conspired to produce a “texting, tweeting, compulsively TikToking generation” with depleting concentration spans, being raised amidst a digital handcart culture and subscribing to instant gratification as its sole survival tool. As if this was not damaging enough, the offensive quality of content on the frontlines of the Internet, especially for young children, exacerbates an already dismal scenario.

What happens next? The “reader generation” gradually starts getting replaced by a “distracted generation”. With visual crutches at the convenience of a click, the possibilities of engaging with books, threading through words on a page and fuelling the fire of the human imagination, are fast becoming adjunct to technology — annihilating in their wake, the love for books, hand-written letters, words — creating a world where words without visuals appear meaningless.

Then there’s the danger of diminishing role models. Whilst most parents are fascinated by the idea of “raising a reader” — an idyllic image of a child splashing in a sea of words, writing to Santa for books instead of toys, rattling off Charlotte’s Web instead of Baby Shark in front of strangers — few of us are willing to tear away from our own screens to read to children or even to ourselves. Children look to us as role models and yet, despite being a storyteller myself, I hadn’t fully grasped the power and necessity of modelling reading habits and behaviours for our girls. It is only this past year that we began a consistent practice of undistracted, technology-free reading (even if it’s for 10 minutes), or sometimes reading by ourselves, without coercing the children to do the same. Often, this results in them emulating our behaviour — picking up a book, without being scolded into reading.

Habit-formation of any kind isn’t easy — it demands consistency and commitment at the best of times. In the current circumstances, when mixed with homeschooling, juggling jobs and restricted movement, reducing screen time and propelling children towards books is particularly challenging. However, a few simple adjustments which can immediately be made within one’s home are worth considering:

1) Introducing a routine, for example, reading before bedtime. Children flourish with routines, plus this introduces the possibility of reading for pleasure, by associating it with family time, instead of reading as just homework or for a graded task.

2) Letting children select a book, creating space for them to interrupt from time to time to react to the story or even retell the story in their own words.

3) Reading in the absence of devices or other distractions.

4) It doesn’t have to be a read-a-thon; 10 minutes of reading can feel magical!

But mostly, be a reader yourself, by modelling it for them!

A current book recommendation for children is the Little People, BIG DREAMS series, ranging from Mahatma Gandhi to Michelle Obama and Muhammad Ali. It offers a compelling starting point to begin offering your children the gift of reading, especially as it features global superstars rather than just western ones.


Saba Karim Khan is the author of Skyfall, released by Bloomsbury and works at NYU Abu Dhabi

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