Teaching the magic of books: Giving children the skills for lifelong learning

  • In Nepal I’m sometimes asked, ‘Why are Bideshis so clever?’ Here’s the secret
Eventually sentences turn into stories. Children listen to their parents reading (or telling) stories out-loud long before they know the letters or can read themselves. They fall in love with the magic of stories

Mar 17, 2018-When my nephew Finn was not even four years old, the first thing he’d say to me—sometimes even before he’d say hello or allow me to enter the house—was “Uncle Tommy, can you tell me a story?” Finn loved stories. As soon as I’d finish one story, he’d ask for another. “Tell me another, please, Uncle Tommy,” he’d say. “Pleeeeeessse!” If I’d convince him to take a break, inevitably he’d be back in a half hour (if that). “Is it time for a story yet?”

My nephew particularly loved stories I’d tell about Nepal. He’s six now and still does. His favourites are stories about elephants tromping through Tarai grassland jungles and about yaks on treacherous mountain trails in Khumbu. Together we have duelled with cobras, fought off bandits, and drank a lot of salty Sherpa tea. We are planning an Everest expedition.

My nephew’s thirst for stories brings me great joy, and not just because I like to tell him about Nepal. It’s because his love for stories means that he is well prepared for a lifetime of learning. Long before starting first grade, he had developed language skills, reasoning skills, knowledge about the world, and even basic reading skills. Now, he can speak about a lot of unusual subjects for a 6-year-old, including the geography and people of a small Himalayan country on the other side of the planet from his home.

Most important, stories have made Finn curious about the world and eager to learn more. That will carry him a long way in life.Finn was not born with this obsession about stories and learning. It was intentionally planted and cultivated by adults in his life, particularly his parents. It started long before he ever set foot in a classroom. It started when he was six months old when his parents began showing and reading books to him. Indeed, even before he had reached six months.

Here’s how my sister-in-law remembers that moment: “We started (with books) practically from birth. Really he (Finn) was probably a few weeks old the first time we laid on the floor with both the baby and parent on their back and held a picture book above both our heads to read.”

Since I first started coming to Nepal several decades ago, I have been asked a lot of interesting questions. Because I’ve worked a lot in rural schools, I’m often asked about American education. One question I’ve heard several times is “Why are bideshis so clever?” I don’t think bideshis are actually always so clever, but I do think we have a couple of advantages, such as good schools (in which political parties don’t interfere in school management!).

Another, even more important advantage is that most middle class American children first come to school curious, eager to learn, and ready to read. Long before grade 1, and even before KG, they learn these crucial skills at home.

How do they learn these skills at home? It’s both harder and easier than it looks.

In the US, small children learn through games, of course, but the number-one most important thing they do, above-all-else, is start looking at books. In middle class households, this generally starts well before the child can walk or talk. Babies can’t make out letters, much less read, but they can look at the pictures. At four months, they show interest in books. At six months, they get interested in very simple stories. They soon learn to turn the pages.

Eventually sentences turn into stories. Children listen to their parents reading (or telling) stories out-loud long before they know the letters or can read themselves. They fall in love with the magic of stories. Often, if they hear a story a couple of times, they will remember not just events but even particular sentences. That is how we learn words and language skills.

Whenever Nepali friends come to visit in the US, there’s one place that I really want them to see. No, not the Grand Canyon, the Empire State Building, or the White House. Instead, it’s a more everyday space: the moment after dinner in a young family’s house or apartment when, before the children are put to sleep, their parents read or tell them stories. This is called “storytime.”

Although a common part of American culture—almost every middle class family with young children has storytime almost every night—for a number of reasons it’s almost impossible for outsiders to observe. One reason is that, increasingly, Nepali visitors to the US stay with other Nepalis or in hotels and don’t see the inner workings of American families. The other reason is that young American families are normally so busy with round-the-clock childrearing that the last thing they have energy for is feeding and showing around a foreign guest.

But this culture of stories and books is crucial. Through daily storytime, children get hooked on narratives, reading, and learning. Although a lot of work for the parents at first, eventually storytime makes their lives much easier: The child gets so excited that, on their own, they seek out new books to read, new opportunities to explore. That’s where my nephew Finn is now, and I suspect, where he’ll be most of his life.

Research shows that the more adults talk to and share language with children, often in an encouraging and playful way, the better prepared for school and life they become. Reading is a core part of life for babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers in the US and in Europe, and increasingly in Nepal, thanks to the effort of a lot of innovative and wonderful educators.

That was not always the case. For most of the 19th and early 20th century, Nepalis were not allowed to go to school and almost no one got the chance to read and write. Oral traditions flourished, but until recent decades a widespread culture of reading did not exist. Fortunately, that has been changing. 

- Thomas Robertson

Dr Tom Robertson is Executive Director of Fulbright-Nepal/USEF

Published: 17-03-2018 07:46

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