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From cover to cover By Hafsa Ahsan

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From cover to cover By Hafsa Ahsan
« on: April 20, 2008, 10:49:44 PM »
From cover to cover

By Hafsa Ahsan

“ALRIGHT folks,” said the International Relations teacher to his nervous students at the start of a major examination. “I want all of you to pen a summary of the book review you submitted to me as your term assignment. Write down only the main points. But do this summary before getting down to answering your exam questions.”

Most faces fell ... The reason why the announcement caused a stir among the students was that most of them had just not bothered reading any book. They had simply copied a review from one of the many available websites. Stuck in a difficult situation now, they didn’t have a clue about what to write as a summary. Clearly they were outsmarted by the teacher, who knew his students well.

Reading today has taken a back seat to computers, the Internet and satellite television. The problem is seen mostly among the student population, for whom the word ‘reading’ carries little or no meaning. For them it is equivalent to studying from textbooks.

But this sorry state of affairs can be remedied if teachers and educational institutions also take some interest in their students’ reading habits. In some cases, they are really trying — all primary school children have a library period dedicated to browsing through the school library followed by getting the books that they want to read issued for a week. Then book reviews or reports too are given as frequent assignments.

But as the aforementioned incident illustrates, the fact that many students just don’t want to read even if it is only one book which they have to read and review in six months.

Book reviews, available freely on innumerous websites, serve as a convenient shortcut for doing such assignments when the most impressive review is copied and pasted by the student to be submitted as his or her original work. Few teachers are even able to discern the devious minds of their tech-savvy students. With things like this going on, giving students assignments such as book reviews to brush up on their reading does, however, seem like a futile exercise. So what else can be done?

Firstly, teachers can ensure that whenever they set an assignment involving book reviews, it should be followed by a viva of sorts. This viva may be set from the entire book as well as the review that was submitted. If the kids know that they will be tested this way, it would set off warning bells among those who don’t read books. It would be unlikely that they will turn to the web and submit a book review without even reading through a book.

Second, instead of book reviews or reports, the teachers can also set other assignments regarding books. They can ask students to compare two books by the same author or two books written on the same topic by different authors. This is definitely going to introduce students to a wider variety of books as they launch their search for books to compare. Of course, with the easy availability of term papers online, it is likely that the Internet might again be sought to simplify matters. This again points towards a viva exercise to ensure that the students know what they read and submit.

Teachers routinely do come up with new ideas involving assignments related to books. A business communications teacher at a local university set his students an assignment of compiling an abridged version of a book of their choice. Interestingly, those who went for fiction had a miserable time, especially when they chose books by Dan Brown. However, this was one assignment which definitely required harder work and at the end of the day, it really got the students more involved in the book in order to produce the summarised version.

It is important to remember that in the aforementioned examples, teachers are (to put it rather crudely) shoving books down their students’ throats. Even though it may make them read, it will not really inculcate in them a love for reading. It is a rare pupil who will actually get into reading simply because he or she enjoyed doing it for an assignment and now wants to read further.

A love of reading is something which must be implanted at the primary school level since those are the most formative years of our lives and if the library periods are effectively utilised, they can serve the purpose well.

Unfortunately, even if students are found to be avid readers at that stage, they are discouraged by none other than their own parents, who want them to concentrate on their homework in order to achieve high marks in their school subjects. The obsession with over-achieving ensures that by the time the students get into secondary school, they only consider studying from textbooks as reading. And hence, teachers have to set them more and more assignments in order to get them back on the leisure reading track.

In a nutshell, teachers and educational institutions have to come up with innovative ideas if they really want their students to go beyond textbook reading. As hard as this task seems on the outset, it is not entirely impossible. But with the mushrooming of schools in every nook and cranny of our country, coupled with little or no teacher training system, it is quite unlikely that those at the helm of affairs are really going to be bothered by how much (or how little) their students are reading.

However, there are always some commendable exceptions amongst the majority — the teachers who are really trying to make a difference — and there is no reason why they cannot serve as role models for the rest in order to ensure that the coming generation is well-versed in the art of reading and will be reading books from cover to cover.


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