Raising readers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2007, 12:00am

For many Hong Kong children, reading is an excruciating exercise associated with churning out book reports and cramming new words. Five-year-old Martin Ho Chun-yau used to feel the same way - especially when his mother Catherine Lam Siu-yin took a lecturing tone as they read together. That's changed since she attended a reading workshop.

The notion of teaching parents how to read to their children may seem redundant, but Lam can testify to the difference a little advice makes. 'I've learned how to make reading fun for both of us,' says the housewife. 'We now enjoy it so much that I read an extra book to reward Martin for good behaviour. He loves it when I read to him.'

Although the Chinese traditionally view reading as a solitary activity, a growing number of parents such as Lam are looking to fresh strategies to help improve their children's reading skills. And they're discovering in the process a wonderful opportunity to bond with the youngsters.

'Parents should read aloud to their children. It's about cultivating a close connection,' says Tsang Kwong-yuen, a senior trainer with the Boys' and Girls' Clubs Association of Hong Kong, which has organised family literacy workshops since 2001.

Most realise early literacy is important to a child's development, but many either don't know how to read to their children or do it the wrong way, Tsang says.

'The old way is to read a book from start to finish and children just listen without interrupting. But the thing is they should be the boss,' he says. 'Let them do what they want, whether it's to ask questions or read the book from back to front. The point of reading is to stimulate their mind and get them to think.'

This idea is among several the association has adopted from Bring Me A Book, a US non-profit group which shares similar values in fostering family literacy. Businessman James Chen Yue-jia set up the Hong Kong branch last year in collaboration with his charity, the Chen Yet-sen Family Foundation, after spotting a 'hunger for high quality books' among pupils at a state-of-the-art school in Qidong near Shanghai.

'It had a multimedia centre with nice computers, but the library was miserable. The books weren't appealing and nobody was using it,' Chen recalls. 'Yet when I put in some new books, children got so excited they started to line up outside. I don't know much about libraries, but I think children across China want more quality books.

'I don't get why people are willing to pay so much money to tutors when it's so simple: be your kids' first teachers by starting from an early age,' he says. To localise the programme, Chen teamed up with the more experienced association, which has trained more than 4,000 parents from various backgrounds over the past six years.

'What strikes me about Bring Me A Book is their egalitarian view of reading - that every family, regardless of social status or income, has the right to quality literature,' says Tsang.

'Low-income [families] can be harder to teach because they're not well-educated ... but we want to reach out to new immigrants who can't read English or traditional Chinese, so we've stocked some books using simplified characters to ensure they're not left out.'

Parents signing up for the family literacy programmes aren't merely motivated by the prospect of boosting their children's grades.

'I'm not really concerned about how it will help my son perform academically; at this stage it's still too early,' says Lam. 'As long as he's happy with his books, I'm happy.'

Snowy Wong Man-ying, an office worker, shares similar views. 'I read to my daughter partly to get to know her better,' she says. 'I've learned a lot from the books as well. I'd like to think good grades will come along when your kids enjoy reading.'

But Chen and Tsang lament that their family literacy drive is hampered by an uninspiring selection of children's books, especially well-illustrated original works in Chinese.

'There are Disney books and other fairy tales adorned with beautiful pictures, but children need books that are true to life, tell a good story and are visually stimulating with vivid illustrations,' says Tsang.

Chen adds: 'There are very few books like this on the market because there's no demand. It's a vicious cycle. There must be a wider world of books out there and book-sellers don't sell them unless we can generate demand for them.'

Yet local children have done surprisingly well in a global literacy survey, according to results released a few weeks ago. Hong Kong ranked second in the Progress in International Reading Literacy

Study conducted by Boston College last year, up from 14th position in 2001. Russia topped the study assessing reading skills of 215,000 fourth-graders in 45 countries.

Academics credit the jump to a revamped curriculum and better teacher training, as Hong Kong still does poorly in categories such as parents' attitude towards reading and the frequency of reading activities.

'It shows our children are reading with more confidence and a better attitude. Hong Kong could be number one next time if more parents join the literacy movement,' says Tse Shek-kam, a professor of education at the University of Hong Kong which conducted the local section of the survey.

'But the idea of family literacy has yet to catch on here. About 80 per cent of parents seldom read with their children and 15 per cent read for less than an hour every week.'

Reaching out to parents is a challenge, says Fok Yuk-ying, an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

'It's not like implementing reforms in schools which can affect a lot of people at the same time. Parents are scattered and it's hard to get the message through to them in a big way.'

Still, parents may already be raising children's literacy without realising it. 'Reading isn't just associated with books. It's everywhere you look,' says Tsang.

'You can read a street sign and tell stories of the history of the place, sing a song, even gaze at stars and explain what makes them shine.'