SINGAPORE: The "circuit breaker" has forced everyone to spend time at home. Many people would be worrying about their livelihood and finances.
And although reading would be far from their minds, this time is an opportunity to rethink this activity, just as it has made us re-evaluate the way we work, learn, socialise and exercise.
We need to ask: How do we build family and communities for and through reading? That is, how do we bring reading into the centre of the home and use reading to reconnect with the community?
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READING AND FAMILY TOGETHERNESS
There is the tendency to think of reading as a solitary pursuit.
Certainly, one can sit down alone to enjoy a good novel, an absorbing non-fiction book or re-read one’s favourite DC comics or Japanese manga.
But reading is also, surprisingly perhaps, a means to connect with loved ones and with others during this stay-at-home period.
As a family, we can put time aside for reading to and reading with children, for enjoyment, education and family bonding.
Research shows that children who are readers of books - printed or digital - are lucky in two ways: They not only have fun but also learn about themselves, other people and the world.
That is, reading is a form of “pleasurable learning” and allows for what professors Susan Neuman and Donna Celano call "information capital" – the type of information that makes it easier to acquire more knowledge.
“Reading to” children is not just for very young children. Older children who are fluent readers of one kind of books, say comics, may be daunted by books with few pictures and might gain from being read aloud to.
This was the case of the Primary 3 daughter of one of us, who after having the first three chapters of the classic American tale Charlotte’s Web read to her by a parent, went on to finish the rest on her own over the week.
Another way to spend fruitful family time is to "read with" children. Parents and children can read a book together and then discuss the stories, characters and ideas in it.
One US study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of 1,000 individuals found that reading literary fiction develops empathy by making them realise that others may have different desires and beliefs from them.
Reading the news and material related to current affairs with kids may be another way to open their eyes and minds to new perspectives.
For example, this would be a good time to read one of the many publications of poetry written by migrant workers in Singapore, who are so much in the news these days.
CONNECTING WITH THE COMMUNITY
In these times of COVID-19 and social distancing, reading is also a way to stay connected to others.
Libraries and bookshops are closed now, but there are plenty of free books online. We can borrow from hundreds of thousands of free e-books and audiobooks available on the National Library Board (NLB) portal, the 60,000 titles from Project Gutenberg, and 600 audiobooks made free on Amazon’s Audible service.
The Internet also opens up new ways to share with others on reading so as to connect and have conversations with those in similar positions.
Parents could tie up with other family members and friends or link their kids to their friends for reading activities and book clubs through online meeting platforms such as Zoom or Skype.
They might even try an unusual lockdown reading activity that has emerged called Silent Zoom, where people come together to enjoy their own books in the silent company of others.
Families can join the coronavirus community reading and meet-the-author initiatives by local publishers and bookshops Ethos Books, Books Actually and Epigram Books. They can also join the NLB’s new virtual storytelling activities for children.
Done alone or together, reading is a way to relieve the solitude and disengagement the circuit breaker may bring.
First, reading helps one keep in touch with the world and avoid a feeling of being isolated. It can also help maintain mental wellness through bibliotherapy, where reading is used to find solutions to personal challenges by encouraging connections and conversations with others.
Second, navigating the daily modern life requires reading of all forms from advertisements to news, from recipes to solving problems. Surveys in Singapore by the NLB and the rest of the world show that, despite TV and the rise of new media, reading remains a popular leisure activity.
HELPING THE LESS PRIVILEGED
Unfortunately, the benefits of reading are unevenly spread: Children from families with more resources tend to read, and gain, more.
A study by one of us found that teenagers read more if they are from homes with more books and whose parents also read. They also enjoy reading more, leading them to read even more in a snowball effect.
The added challenge for the disadvantaged is that having books alone are not enough.
It is also essential to have someone – a parent, teacher, librarian, or volunteer – to gently lead a child through the sometimes challenging period of starting to read so they can begin to enjoy it.
There are groups here such as ReadAble that help underprivileged children to read by mentorship and instruction.
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But face-to-face efforts are hard to replicate online during the circuit breaker period because many of these groups may not have the resources to do so or are simply not prepared for online engagement.
Thus providing help to children from poorer families during the pandemic is a bigger challenge than usual.
Moreover, teachers flustered with the sudden need to create lessons for home-based learning may not have the bandwidth to integrate pleasure reading into an online curriculum, essential for disadvantaged kids.
The coronavirus has raised challenges and offered opportunities for the world. Reading might not solve problems of hunger and poverty, but it can provide other forms of solace to us as individuals, families and communities during this stay-at-home period.
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Loh Chin Ee is an Associate Professor at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She recently shared some parenting tips to encourage reading as part of an NIE initiative, Education at Home, to support parents during the Circuit Breaker period. Tan Tarn How is a researcher in cultural policy, a playwright and the author of the Sengkang Snoopers children’s adventure book series.