Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Books Transform Lives (1)

Between the lines: reading together helps families bond and grow

I regularly venture into parts of Hong Kong I would never see were it not for my work with Bring Me a Book. I visit kindergartens, primary schools and community centres.
When I see the sweet and earnest faces of the children, I can't help but wonder about their future. How many of them will break out of their economic class and stop the poverty that often gets passed from generation to generation?
Many parents in these communities can barely make ends meet, yet they will spend what little they have on after-school tutorial classes for their children. They do so in the misguided belief that more tutorials lead directly to better school grades and, ultimately, success in life.
The after-school classes to which I refer are not the fun-filled and stimulating activities that middle-class children enjoy. Tutorials in these communities often involve paying HK$50 for a child to sit silently for one hour, among rows of students, watching an instructor with a wireless microphone expounding academic theories.
This learning environment is hardly helpful for a child who is already struggling at school. Most parents want their children to read well, yet many are sceptical about their ability to help their children develop a lifelong love of books. Some parents don't believe they are educated enough or have sufficient language skills. Others blindly follow the masses; if the whole neighbourhood has signed up for English flashcard classes, they feel compelled to do the same.
I tell parents in these communities to save their money and take their kids to the public library instead. Through our read-aloud training workshops, they come to understand the tangible and intangible benefits of parent-child read-aloud sessions.
And after they put what they've learned into practice, they become true believers that something so simple as reading stories together can have a big impact on their family life and their children's development.
Middle-class families tend to spend quality time together and live in homes containing at least half a dozen books. This is not the case in lower-class families.
One parent told me that, before she started reading with her son, their interaction usually involved berating him about school homework and household chores. This parent went from a long day of work to an evening of cooking, cleaning and childcare. Her eight-year-old son rarely spoke to her, preferring to spend his time playing video games in his room.
Our training workshops comprise two classes one week apart. At the end of the first class, we give parents two books to take home, and ask them to read aloud to their children every night for one week.
By the time the parent with the eight year-old son returned for the second class, she was a devotee of reading aloud.
She revealed that her son was at first reluctant to sit down and listen to his mother read a picture book. When they finally sat down and read the story together, she suddenly realised that she hadn't cuddled with her son, not in months, but years.
By the end of the week, mother and son were having meaningful conversations, including her son sharing that a friend was being bullied at school.
She began to see her son in a new light, as the labels of irresponsible, ill-mannered and unresponsive melted away, and his sense of humour and endearing perspective on life came to the foreground.
By the end of the second class, she knew that their lives had been transformed.
This parent was aware that this transformation would improve the relationship, but what she had yet to learn was what had happened would lead directly to her son's improved cognitive and non-cognitive ability.
In the next column we will find out how. 

Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me a Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them bringmeabook.org.hk

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