Allotting reading time in rural classrooms


Most of the village children in the school where I teach come from families which earn their livelihood through agriculture or manual labour. In these families there is no culture of reading or academics. The children grow up working hard at home helping their parents and their free time is reserved for watching television. In such a scenario trying to instil reading habits was a nightmare, but that is just what I was endeavouring to do.

After many unsuccessful experiments I finally started reaping benefits when I decided to reserve 15–20 minutes of my 80-minute class for compulsory reading. I thought, in this way the children could have the silent concentrated experience of reading, which was not possible at home.

The activity was simple:

  • The children chose any book of their interest.
  • There was no monitoring of the genre (topics ranged from Origami to Dance to Fiction) or level of book.
  • They had to read the book silently in class.
  • They could take the book home to continue with their reading.
  • There was no monitoring of the time taken to complete the book.

I would sometimes nudge them to read a book which I thought would be of interest to them (sometimes I would suggest books of a higher level as well) but they were under no obligation to issue them. As time passed, to my extreme satisfaction, I started observing some unexpected benefits:

  1. Discovery learning –According to Piaget, it is important for children to discover new, meaningful information through spontaneous interaction with new environments; and a book qualifies as a new psychological environment. With curiosity, I observed where the natural affinity of the child would lead him/her. Gender stereotyping stood attested: girls often picked books on dancers, angels, princesses, etc. Books on cars and superheroes were quite popular with the boys. Yes, occasionally there were children with a special interest, such a thirteen–year-old who was always on the lookout for myths and legends. Another young girl started exploring books on horses after she finished an abridged version of Black Beauty.
  2. Observational learning –The children often shared their books and stories with each other, and soon some books became very popular. I witnessed a stampede when I brought in a new batch of Tinkle comics for the children. Yes, that was fun! When a child completes a book which is perceived as tough, the effects percolate to other students as well. Something of that child’s confidence seeps into the other children, and they muster courage to approach the ‘untouchable fat books’. Some see it as a challenge—if a classmate can read a tough book, why can’t they? There is a healthy competition that sets in naturally, without marks and examinations.
  3. Transfer of learning –Cognition in one’s head can be delightful when the dots add up and one begins to make connections between unrelated nuggets of information. It is a proud moment when a child encounters information or concepts that he/she has read in a book, and there is the loud proclamation that they ‘knew it from before’. In creative-writing sessions I noticed that children happily borrowed plots and characters from the books; I do not see this as ‘copying’, but rather as a platform from where children can launch themselves, guided by their unique creative urges. Recently, ‘Bob the Builder’ was given a very Tamil Indian touch in one of the student’s notebooks, and I admit that I was delighted at Bob’s transformation.
  4. DIY mode – Last year a child picked up a book on origami and the next day he came to class with some origami rabbits. This was the beginning of an epidemic. Soon all books on origami disappeared from the shelves, and strange paper models started to invade my classroom. My equanimity, tolerance and benevolence were tested as I saw paper aeroplanes fly and pages of English notebooks take the form of rabbit whiskers. However, the joy of the children compensated for all of that.
  5. From near to far – Building on children’s current level of thinking: as the teacher, I am passive in the first 15/20 minutes of the class; however, the child is fully concentrated and mentally alert. He is in a psychological space which is full of ideas, words, grammar, logic, sentence structures, information, plots and so on. His mind is imbued with interest and silently absorbing English.

    At the beginning of the programme, I was apprehensive as the children picked only ‘thin’ books with lots of pictures and minimal text. However, I decided not to interfere and let the process continue. With time, I noticed that as their confidence grew the children began to graduate organically to tougher and ‘fatter’ books.

    Independent of the teacher, the child reaches the psychological moment when she does not see the book as a marshy land to plod through. Instead, it becomes a lagoon or a river, where wading becomes easy and adventurous. And then? The age-old joy of reading reasserts itself in a new seat of consciousness.

Payal Adhikari, has been in the field of teaching for over thirteen years. She works in both rural and urban sectors. Payal believes in a student-centric teaching paradigm which aims at integral development of the child. She works with young teenagers and likes to create a democratic atmosphere where children can actively participate. She has spent many years working with children from villages and believes it is a crucial field requiring creative attention. For her, providing quality education at the grassroots levels is crucial as it can shape social development and ultimately nation building.