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Reading beyond boundaries

A Giridhar RAO

(Slightly edited version of an article published in Teacher Plus (Hyderabad), May/June 2002, p. 4)

Reading aloud, I find, adds an extra dimension to the pleasure of reading. This is especially true of poetry and drama, but even prose yields more when its cadences become audible. Further, you read slower when reading aloud, and that very slowing down allows for a richer reading, across subjects and languages.

I had the opportunity earlier this year to re-verify these two beliefs -- of reading aloud and richer reading -- during a month-and-a-half of reading with children of Vidyaranya High School, in Hyderabad.

At Vidyaranya High School, children up to class IV have 'class libraries', and 'library classes' from class V. That is, up to class IV, books are kept in the classrooms themselves, and the children do not visit the school library. They start doing so only from class V, and spend one period a week browsing books that have been segregated both by subject and age group. In this they are guided both by their teacher (often the English teacher), as well as the tastes and fashions (then, for example, Harry Potter) among their peers.

As might be expected, there was a fair bit of heterogeneity in the children's reading habits, with the reading habits of the child's family providing the basic frame of reference. But whether or not they were the 'reading-types', the children were a lively, articulate bunch drawing upon many sources when prompted, ranging from other books, through television and cinema, to travel, and, of course, their own lives and languages.

I met all the classes in their respective classrooms, rather than in the library, and carried in reading material with me. Reading aloud to a class meant that everybody was experiencing the same text; it made not just for lively interactions but also introduced them to general reading strategies (which are listed under 'language work' towards the end of this essay). But getting the students to read aloud turned out to be a rather uneven and unsatisfactory experience. Even the best of the 'readers' needed individual coaching, something that could not be done when there was an entire class awaiting attention. On the other hand, if they were allowed to read 'naturally' the rest of the class quickly got bored. Therefore, for these sessions, I decided to do almost all of the reading myself.

I discovered that I could use the same text for classes IV and V; and another one for VI and VII -- there was no perceptible loss in comprehension if the class V text was carried into IV, or another from class VII to VI. In classes IV and V, to start with, we read Waiting for the Rain by Kamakshi Balasubramanian (from Nehru Bal Pustakalaya, a rich source of texts). The story, set in rural India, offered many opportunities to these entirely urban, and middle class and upper-middle class children of India to imagine Bharat. We used the internal evidence in the story to reconstruct the geography of the story: with a name like Velu, where in India might the protagonist be from? What language would he have spoken? (The story was in English, of course.) What would he grow if the rains came? Did anyone know what, for example, 'sorghum' was?

With the VIth and VIIth classes, we read a wide variety of texts. One of these was an excerpt from Getting Children Out of Work and into School, a report of the MV Foundation, a Hyderabad-based NGO. The report begins with brief pen-sketches of some of the children and their lives: seven-year-old Keshavallu whose parents had migrated to the city, bonding him to a landlord in the village in exchange for a loan; twelve-year-old Saritha, bonded to a biscuit factory owner; twelve-year-old Mallesh who worked in a plastic slippers factory, and who owns his first pair now, and so on. Once again, there were entire lives and worlds to be imagined, and the class six and seven students had more than enough imagination to empathize with the lives described.

The report afforded much discussion of the social context too, of course: why such lives were common in India, and in the Third World generally; what role do states and NGOs play in addressing these vast inequities; and how increasing awareness among well-to-do citizens of the issues involved contributes to the struggle. And of course, with each of these questions, new words and concepts were introduced and discussed: in this case, NGO, child labour, bonded labour, migrant labour, malnutrition, empowerment, etc.

Other texts that we read with all the classes too emphasised non-urban contexts: stories set in medieval India; national parks; and rural Europe (Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Zlateh the Goat"), and USA (Jesse Stuart's "A Ribbon for Baldy"). In all these, we tried to flesh out the 'outwork' of the story -- find the historical period it is set in; the geography, and therefore, climate, dress and food, for instance; the social context for the tale, and so on. Practically every text also offered opportunities to 'poach' other 'subjects' -- the Hemingway story, "A Day's Wait" (PDF) revolved around the confusion between Fahrenheit and Centigrade, for example. Another story prompted many questions on plant biology, and prompted the children to recall all they knew about plant morphology from the year before. For Geetika Jain's Something Special, set in a national park, there was plenty to draw upon from the television channels of National Geographic, Discovery, and Animal Planet!

We did language work as and when the opportunity presented itself. And it did, practically everywhere: prefixes and suffixes; etymologies and cognates (and the idea of Greek and Latin as 'source languages' for English); equivalents in other languages that the children knew (and it was a revelation to many just how many languages were 'available' amongst themselves, and how infrequently they drew upon that priceless resource); pronunciation pitfalls (and how those were virtually absent in a planned language like Esperanto); typical sentence structures in various languages (subject-verb-object in English versus subject-object-verb in Telugu); powerful, 'killer' languages (like English, Hindi, Bengali and Telugu), and the effect this language politics has had on less powerful languages and dialects (like Telangana Telugu); and, finally, at the sociolinguistic level, how they themselves were rapidly losing expressive capacity in their mother tongues thanks to an English education, and the kinds of things they might need to do to retain this richly layered multilingualism.

Thus, even in this relatively unstructured month-and-a-half of reading only prose narratives, there were many opportunities to both introduce language work at several levels, as well as deconstruct traditional disciplinary boundaries between English, other languages, social studies and the sciences -- and all this in the context of some very enjoyable reading.

Comments? Do write to me! (agiridhar.rao@gmail.com)

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