A Room To Read: Case For Libraries In Schools

Most public libraries in India do not have a separate and engaging area for children; there is a need to create a reading corner in our public libraries that includes not only access to reading resources that will imbue pre-reading skills, but also engaging activities

Aman (name changed), an early-grade child from a rural area of Chhattisgarh, lit up when he saw the 'Room to Read' library for the first time. He looked around the lively and colourful room filled with attractive storybooks, wide-eyed. The librarian understood his excitement as well as his reluctance to approach the bookshelves. Aman was quickly reassured that he could take and read any book he wanted, as many times as he wanted. He flipped through the books, moving from one bookshelf to the next. Aman began spending more time with books during his school's library period after that, exploring the vibrant world of stories. His eagerness to learn about these stories compelled him to concentrate on reading the illustrations and text. Thus began his positive relationship with the library and his love of reading. He later described his book-reading journey as one filled with challenges, surprises and, finally, fun. 

Seema (name changed) from Madhya Pradesh was a shy ten-year-old who kept to herself. Reading was difficult for her as a first-generation learner. Her first encounter with a library occurred in 2019, when Room to Read India and UNICEF collaborated to establish a library in her school. Her interest in the stories and story characters grew after she began attending library sessions and listening to her teacher narrate stories. Seema's teacher, a trained librarian, encouraged her to bring the books home with her. What began as casual story listening evolved into an engrossing and ultimately engaging reading acquisition process. Seema had read over forty books in a matter of months. Her love of reading also allowed her to freely interact and express herself. 

According to neuroscience research, we are not naturally wired to read, unlike oral language, which is hard-wired into our brain. Children begin to recognise speech sounds as early as infancy, but reading as a skill must be learned. 

Each one of us, who has to learn to read, has to create new circuit in the brain. Reading literally changes the brain and allows us to make new connections between visual region, language region, regions for thought and emotion, in order for us to read and make meaning. 

Reading science demonstrates that learning to read is a complex process. In order to become a skilled reader, many strands such as phonological awareness, decoding, language structure, vocabulary and comprehension must be interwoven. 

Children acquiring the skill to decode, simultaneous need to understand and comprehend what is being read – for which vocabulary and background knowledge is essential. A child ought to be reading at her decoding level and parallelly exposed to text beyond her decoding level. 

We all love a story. We are all natural storytellers and children are no exception. A library rich with diverse books that capture children’s imagination helps them associate reading with pleasure. Accumulated research with children emphasizes the importance of reading for pleasure, especially the positive links with children's literacy development such as breadth of vocabulary, positive reading attitudes and reading attainment. (Clark & Rumbold, 2006). Additionally, children’s literature and enhanced orality around it, strengthens comprehension and fluency, specifically in Akshara languages. Interaction with books also builds vocabulary and acquire complex language.   

A library, thus serves a great purpose of creating a larger emotional and cognitive landscape for literacy, by establishing meaning as the main propeller - a critical outcome for effective reading. A comprehensive approach for children learning to read should be immersed in teaching the reading skills as well as creating an enabling reading environment, with lots of opportunities to interact with variety of text for them to become independent and fluent readers.  

However, in the Indian context, especially in rural areas, children aren't exposed to books. Engaging quality reading material sometimes remains out of reach even after getting enrolled in a school. The anecdotes shared above outline the importance of having libraries in school. For children like Seema, a disengaged student, all that was needed was an inviting space (sometimes even a corner) called library. The print rich environment was a first step that encouraged her to take a deeper interest in the process of reading. The librarian had an equally important role in bringing these storybooks to life. While Seema and Aman are on the way to acquiring the essential skill of reading, which serves as a basic building block for academic achievements, there still are so many who are not. Imagine if this approach is followed across, how it could help a whole generation of children, especially in underserved communities, who face many challenges in receiving a good education, and a lack of access to books limits their personal development and future educational attainment. 

Providing access to books and a positive reading experience during library period can transform children’s reading habits. The first few years of a child – the foundational years, as defined in the National Education Policy 2020, are the most crucial years because that’s where majority of the learning takes place. It is important to engage our early learners in discussions through age-appropriate books.  

In fact, learning to read should start long before a child enters school. Children with fundamental pre-reading skills participate actively and are also found to be better at acquiring early literacy skills, once they enter school. However, pre-schoolers don’t get exposed to books, particularly in disadvantaged families, due to the accessibility and affordability of good books. The public and community libraries are in a strong position to drive this initiative and can be an important entity, in these communities. 

Unfortunately, most public libraries in India do not have a separate and engaging area for children. There is a need to create a reading corner in our public libraries that includes not only access to reading resources that will imbue pre-reading skills, but also engaging activities such as storytelling that are specifically designed to promote the enjoyment of reading among children aged 0-5 years. 

Children's attitudes toward reading begin to form long before they become literate and their early reading successes may have a significant impact on their later attitudes toward reading. (Suggate et al., 2013; Tompkins, 2011).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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