|Dr Peter Storey has
worked in Hong Kong for the past 16 years as a language teacher
educator and language teacher. He is currently Head of the Centre
for Language in Education of the Hong Kong Institute of Education,
and Chief Editor of the Asia Pacific Journal of Language in
Education published by that Centre. He has served as advisor
to many projects and initiatives in school language education
in Hong Kong. He has a keen interest in evaluation and is currently
academic director of the Primary NET scheme evaluation project.
||All night I sat reading a book,
Sat reading as if in a book
An exemplary reader
Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955) was a man with
two lives. A trained lawyer and a specialist in investment banking,
he enjoyed a successful business career and became vice president
of his company before he retired. Stevens was also renowned within
his lifetime as one of the greatest American poets of his generation.
His poetry reveals a man steeped in culture, with broad experience
of the world, able to produce deep philosophical insights. Yet he
had never left his home country and had spent most of his working
life behind a desk in an insurance office. We can speculate that
he had not been widely exposed to television and certainly he had
never surfed the net. His other life was lived in the imagination;
more precisely, it was spent in books. He was a reader.
Stevens gained his experience of the world outside
the confines of his office and his home through extensive reading.
In another Stevens poem, "The House was Quiet and the World
was Calm", he describes how the book is transformed from a
collection of printed words into actual experiences:
|The house was quiet and the world was calm.
|The reader became the book; and the summer night was like the conscious being of the book.2
This same kind of transformation is described by
another well known reader, one who claims to have been "built"
by books. For Spufford (2002), reading is not simply a matter of
decoding printed words, it is as if the print has magical powers
- "the furze of black marks between the covers of The Hobbit
grew lucid, and released a dragon."
Reading - a difficult choice
The power reading has to give us access to worlds
outside our own is well understood by readers who are already addicted.
However, access to those worlds is by no means easy, even for dedicated
readers. Compared to the ease with which we can enter the pre-formed
imagination of the digital world, the task is daunting. Even Spufford
admits that he has to urge himself on through works of real literature,
counting how many pages he has to read before the end, while the
' frictionless surfaces of genre fiction' provide easier food for
his reading compulsion. How many of us nowadays, can spare the energy
not to switch on the television, or the computer, but instead to
delve inside the covers of a book? How many of us, for example,
would prefer to allow our own imaginations to construct Middle Earth
by reading the 1000-page original work, rather than watching one
man's interpretation of The Lord of the Rings on the cinema screen?
Is reading for pleasure, in fact, dead? The writers
of a new book which takes as its sub-heading 'the pleasure of reading'
(Elkin, Train & Denham, 2003)4
do not think so.
Even in these days of the internet and technology
beyond our wildest dreams, the book remains the medium of choice
for millions of people for leisure reading, relaxation, escapism
and many other individual and intimate purposes...(p.1)
Turning Hong Kong pupils into dedicated readers
If we are going to help Hong Kong students become
'readers for pleasure' in this sense, we face a difficult task.
We have to introduce them to the treasures that await them in the
world of print and help them realise how much richer those treasures
are than anything they can find in the easy world of technology.
They have to be led into the magical land of books and their imaginations
allowed to flourish there, but their guide must be someone who has
travelled that land before.
The first step is for the teacher herself to become
a reader, a lover of books. One of the criticisms made of English
teachers in Hong Kong is that they do not see themselves as language
teachers, as a teacher of French, for example, would in an English
speaking country. If we sent our child to an international school
in Hong Kong for example, we would naturally expect the French teacher
to be someone who had studied French literature and was an avid
reader of French, one who relishes the subtle nuances of meaning,
the rich cadences of the language.
In Hong Kong, English is seen as a tool with limited
applications. Since the applications are essentially practical,
a practical approach is considered appropriate and sufficient. Adopting
a practical approach precludes unlocking the world of imagination
for young readers. But young people are full of imagination and
have huge potential for creativity; they are not fired with enthusiasm
for practical applications. Even if it could work, a utilitarian
approach to the teaching of reading for young people would produce
readers with practical skills who had been denied an opportunity
to develop in ways which would contribute immeasurably to their
A new direction
The recommendations of the new Curriculum Guide
for Key Stage One and Two point school-based language learning and
teaching in the right direction. Reading Workshops taking up 40%
of the English curriculum constitute the essential infrastructure
to support a new focus on reading development. The pedagogy of shared
reading and guided reading are essential skills for teachers to
acquire to ensure the effectiveness of the new initiative. These
measures help begin to solve the problem, but the key to the real
solution lies not in the infrastructure, but in the content of the
reading materials we provide.
In 1887, Anne Sullivan, the legendary teacher of Helen Keller, wrote
of the current state of education in the United States, that it
seemed "to be built up on the supposition that every child
is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think."5
If we look at the reading material which many young people are exposed
to in textbooks and readers we would be tempted to believe that
the same kind of supposition prevails.
The current state of the art
Let us look at what typifies reading material
for the middle primary range of pupils aged eight to nine. We can
speculate that the kinds of material readers of this age would have
been exposed to on television, on the internet, in comics and in
magazines would be relatively sophisticated and 'adult' in content.
Their own lives would have been already rich in aesthetic, emotional,
intellectual and experiential content. Pupils of this age would
be most receptive to reading input which could fire their imagination,
inspire them intellectually, appeal to their aesthetic appreciation,
provide them with emotional content they could identify with, feed
their creativity and stimulate them linguistically.
What we find being presented to young people of
this age in textbooks and accompanying readers typically provides
little or nothing to satisfy these appetites. Plots and storylines
are generally devoid of stimulation or interest; descriptive detail
is generally lacking;characters are wooden and faceless.In these
texts, opportunity for linguistic stimulus is forgone in favour
of mechanical repetitions of known forms. Only the blandest of language
is used throughout and it is generally manipulated to serve as a
model for reproduction irrespective of appropriateness to the genre,
or the plot. Emotional depth is deliberately excluded; suspense
and climax are rarely handled, but even these rare instances generally
rely on pictures, rather than language, to create their effect.
These texts lack aesthetic value and provide no stimulus to imagination
A dilemma and a challenge
|None of this
comes as a surprise, of course. In fact it only serves to underline
the dilemma we face in helping pupils make the transition from
learning to read English as a second language, to reading English
with confidence and enjoyment so that they can go on to read
English in order to learn. However, as far as English is concerned,
in Hong Kong we do not seem to be making a great deal of progress
in deliberately NOT treating every child as if he was "a
kind of idiot".
The challenge we face is to source reading
materials which are inspiring, rich in stimulation, texts which
acknowledge pupils as imaginative and creative beings, intelligent
despite any limitation in the amount of second language they bring
to the reading task.
|Extract from "The Reader" in Stevens,
W. (1984). Collected Poems. London:Faber and Faber (p. 165).
|Extract from "The House was Quiet and the World was Calm"
in Stevens (1984 p. 358).
|Spufford, F. (2002). The Child that Books Built. London: Faber
| Elkin, J., Train, B. & Denham, D. (2003) Reading and
reader development: the pleasure of reading. United Kingdom:
|Keller, H. (2003) The Story of my Life. New York: Norton.