Rabat – The questions and pronouncements of small children often have an innocent logic behind them and the power to provoke deep thought. My husband’s 6-year-old niece regularly asks me one such question. “What are you doing?” She asks. “Reading,” I reply. Then comes the supplementary question, a question to which I have never before had to consider and answer, as reading is second nature to me. The supplementary question is, “Why?”
‘There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world’
One possible answer is simply that reading is fun. It opens up new worlds and possibilities. “There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all,” according to Jaqueline Kennedy Onnasis. But, in a world where phones, computers, and screens are taking over every aspect of our lives how can we convince our children to willingly walk towards those worlds and possibilities?
Having taught 16 year old boys in central London and pre-school and primary aged children in Casablanca, I can assure you that it isn’t an easy task.
In London, constrained by timetabling and, of course, the national curriculum, I tried to enforce silent reading for my form group. I read to them, recommended books, offered texts in their native languages, but to no avail. They would stare blankly at the pages. “It’s boring.” “It’s difficult.” “I don’t like reading.” Despite an inspirational and committed English department, these boys were just too far gone.
Helping in my husband’s school in Casablanca’s Derb Sultan, I had the opportunity to work with younger children. These little people happily sat at my feet and listened to a story, were thrilled to re-enact fairy tales, and immerse themselves in new ideas and places. Unfortunately, this excitement didn’t extend to when they were reading themselves.
Several times, I gave a book to read as homework, and every time the book was returned unread. I then noticed that every Moroccan home I visited was entirely devoid of books. Even the houses of people I knew as intellectuals or successful business people held little evidence of reading. This trend is sadly becoming more widespread in homes in the UK. Increasingly, books are seen only as a necessity for school rather than a joy or a step to new possibilities.
One of the little girls at our school, however, became very invested in reading. She would rush into the classroom every afternoon of the summer holidays, asking “Ou aujourd’hui?” Where today? While she was using the wrong interrogative and actually meant “what,” I found the question poignantly accurate. She was asking where reading would take her, and what adventures would she have through each day’s book or story.
Trying to find a way to inspire more pupils to join the ranks of thousands of years of readers, I did a bit of background research on literacy in Morocco. The National Agency Against Illiteracy (ANCLA) reported in 2016 that 32% of Moroccans over the age of 10 are illiterate. The same report showed that 41% of Moroccan women cannot read. Meanwhile, a survey conducted by Morocco’s High Commission for Planning (HCP) found that Moroccans over the age of 15 spend on average only 2 minutes per day practicing sports or reading. The report found that children spend only 1 minute a day reading.
While the statistics for Morocco are not easy reading, Moroccan children are not alone in their lack of interest in reading for pleasure. The UK Reading Agency reports that; “Only 35% of 10-year-olds in England report that they like reading ‘very much’. This lags behind countries like Russia (46%), Ireland (46%), New Zealand (44%), and Australia (43%).”
A world without legends
I must admit that I found these statistics shocking and sad. I have always loved to read and, from being very little, have devoted much of my free time to books. I believe passionately that through losing our connection with words, the written word particularly, we will lose our connection to history, culture, and imagination. As author Ray Bradbury said “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Morocco has a rich and beautiful culture. Morocco is the home of the world’s first University, founded by Fatima Al-Fihiri. It is the home of the Al Moravids, the Al Mohads, and the Alouites and the center of one of the world’s greatest empires. Morocco produced Ibn Batuta, Merieme Chadid, Youssef ibn Tachfin, Yazami Rachid ; Imagine a world where these people did not exist.
If our children and future generations do not read about them, they will, to all intents and purposes, cease to exist and their extraordinary impact on Morocco and the world will be forgotten.
Some would argue that Morocco’s rich tradition of oral history would save its heroes from such a fate. I love hearing my husband’s grandmother or our neighbor in Casablanca share stories of life under French rule, Amazigh tribes, and the long history of Morocco’s native people. And, while oral traditions are important and a magical, enchanting window into Morocco’s past, if legends and histories are never recorded there is a danger that they will be lost forever. Afterall, if nobody reads, who will write?
Another possible answer to my niece’s pertinent question is science. Emotions aside, literacy and reading are key to the neurological development of small children. Research shows that a text rich environment can have a huge positive impact on the intellectual development of children, and adults. Child care quarterly states that, “Children with a foundation in literacy—language and listening skills, familiarity with books, and experience with scribbling and drawing—are more likely to succeed in all school experiences.”
Reading does not only transport us to imaginary worlds but also serves as a door to real life opportunities.The UK Reading Agency states that; “Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education and is a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background.”
The Moroccan government has recognized the importance of promoting literacy. The Social Economic and Environmental Council |(CESE) released a report earlier this year recommending that literacy and the promotion of reading should be integrated into public policy. Meanwhile, ANCLA has already put in place a national strategy that aims to reduce the illiteracy rate to 10% by 2026.
When all is said and done, the honest answer to my niece’s question “why are you reading?” is because I always have. So, the problem then should be ‘how’ rather than’ why.’
How can parents, Moroccan, British, or any other nationality, support their children if they themselves do not or cannot read? Reading is a learned behaviour, it is a habit, and a culture. We must start our children looking at texts before they can talk and before they can walk so that it is as natural as breathing.