Issue 1
Issue 1

The Power of Reading in Rural China

Victor Hugo once said, “Books are tools to make a soul.” How important reading is to a child? It is easier to understand once you have experienced it firsthand.

Hope Primary School is located in a small village in the mountainous region of Western Anhui. Back in the 1990s, it had its first library. It was a worn bookshelf filled with various old books donated by people in the cities. The corner was not at all attractive to children but it was my favorite place to visit when I was a kid.

Reading made me happy and revealed to me a wider world. It contributed greatly in shaping my personality. However, due to a lack of resources, my desire for reading was not properly satisfied. As I grew up, I came to understand more and more that it was not just a lack of resources that was keeping rural children from reading. The problem was bigger than that.

After graduating from university, I joined “Teach for China” and became a teacher. On the frontlines of rural education, I meet children whose lives are similar to my own childhood. I want to create a better reading environment for them. After two years of teaching, I have a better understanding of the realities and I’m endeavoring to make changes together with the children.

1.

In 2014, I became a supporting teacher in a village in Chaozhou, Guangdong, teaching language and literature. During class I mentioned some famous writers, but the kids seemed to be in a daze. The children there did not read books outside of school. Only a few kids told me they had read one or two books of fairy tales.

So my teammates and I looked closely into the reading habits of our pupils and took an initial survey. We found that kids actually spent little time reading. When they did read, they read very few books. For example, looking at all of the students from grades 3 to 6 (34 kids in total), only one kid regularly read books for fun every week. The others just read once in a while. 10 students said they almost never read. Furthermore, their medium of choice was printed books. Some relatively well-off older students would occasionally read novels via mobile phone or computer. The variety of books they read were also quite limited, most of which were study guides, like selections of essays or compilations of sentences and phrases. They might also read stuff like brain teasers, comics and literary stories.

Students elsewhere in Guangdong were also struggling with reading, as my teacher colleagues discovered. They cited the students’ bad habits, low comprehension levels and tendency to read things quickly and superficially.

2.

Since we had uncovered the problem, the next step was to find the causes and come up with solutions. First, it was the problem of resources. The major medium for the students’ reading was printed books. At that time, printed books were only available at bookstores in town. There was only one regular daily bus to the town, ambulating along the mountain roads for more than an hour. It was very inconvenient. Some kids read books left lying around the house by their parents and other family members. Understandably, these books were not very attractive to them.

Moreover, our survey showed that 64% of the parents almost never prodded their kids to read nor cared about it. And teachers seldom encouraged their pupils to do extracurricular reading either.

The rural kids’ lack of exposure to long-term reading and weak fundamental language skills affected their comprehension capacity, which was indeed inferior to urban school kids at about the same grade level. Most of the students said they would rather watch TV than read.

3.

Knowing this situation, my teammates and I took action immediately.

First step, build up the facilities. In Sep-tember of 2014, we raised money to build a reading room. Various books suitable for different ages, grades and levels were selected to fill the bookcases. Then we set up two reading corners for each class. The books in each class were carefully selected based on the suggestions of experts to ensure the appropriateness for children of their respective grades.

Second step, set up a system. Having good books, we still needed a borrowing system. We set up an open borrowing system for the reading room and corners, managed by the kids and under the guidance of teachers. Furthermore, the school introduced reading into the formal class schedule, with two sessions per week for each class. Teachers supervised the reading activities.

Liu Xiaohui
Our reading room
Liu Xiaohui
Kids see an illustrated book for the first time

Third step, encourage reading. In order to build a good reading atmosphere and encourage children to read actively, we organized a series of activities called the “Reading Festival.” Kids kept a reading log, and they could claim little prizes once they reached certain benchmarks for the number of pages read. We also held competitions that encouraged reading— they made reading boards and wrote out newspaper articles by hand etc. At the monthly reading gathering, children recommended good books to each other and engaged in story-telling and quiz competitions, which would stimulate them to do better reading.

These were the events my teammates and I organized in our school. Last year, many more supporting teachers of “Teach For China” took actions in their schools.

In March of 2016, “Teach For China” conducted a survey of the 141 supporting teachers in Guangdong and Yunnan. Of that total, 62.5% had organized reading activities in their schools, including setting up reading environments, enhancing their children’s reading capacity, stimulating reading enthusiasm and so on.

An impressive variety of reading activities, each designed in accordance with the specific needs of the pupils in each school, was implemented. 46.67% of the teachers organized competitions related to reading, based around concepts like story-telling, natural science and student reports. 38.33% of the teachers organized reading clubs. The teachers also organized events like “Reading Week,” “Reading Sharing,” “Read A Book Together” and “Talk Series on Reading.” In addition to their formal teaching duties, 36% of teachers organized regular reading classes to guide students through illustrated books, classics and other types of literature.

4.

“What a shining moon tonight!” exclaimed a resident teacher one night while she was doing laundry with her students. A second-grader corrected her immediately. “It’s not true. The moon is not luminous,” the girl said. She had read it in a popular science picture book—and she remembered it! Before that, most of the kids didn’t even know that the earth rotates around the sun, while the moon rotates around the earth.

When we sow a seed and wait patiently, it always yield fruits. Since 2014, in my two years serving as a supporting teacher, my teammates and I have built a reading room and reading corners in the school. Every night we read stories for the kids in residence before bedtime. Every week we have a talk under the national flag to recommend a good book. We’ve already held three reading festivals consecutively, including a dozen reading competitions and exchanges involving the entire school. Our school now has a lively reading atmosphere. We’ve witnessed more and more noticeable changes among the kids.

Liu Xiaohui
Event from the reading festival

According to our monthly reading logs, more than a half of grade 3 to 6 students have read more than 800 pages. On one occasion, one student read more than 3,000 pages in one month. In a recent survey, 70.59% of them said they planned to read 15 or more books in one semester.

In Reading Exchange, they tell stories with confidence and discuss books with ease. For the Reading Competition, they produce reading boards to illustrate the themes of different books. At the Under the National Flag ceremony, they recite passages. They even produce their own amazing storybooks with illustrations.

These changes are brought about by the power of reading. Their step-by-step growth has shown us the unlimited potential of rural kids. Let’s hope that more and more rural children can get access to reading resources. Reading should be a part of their lives, nurturing them so they can grow up happily.

Text by Liu Xiaohui, “Teach for China” Teacher in Xiaxiao Primary School, Fubin Township, Raoping County, Chaozhou City, Guangdong English translation by Erebus Wong

Statistics of Rural China

  1. Total population of China: 1.37 billion, of whom 665 million live in urban areas and 674 million live in rural areas. (Source: the 6th National Census)
  2. Children aged 0-14: 228 million, 50% of whom live in rural regions. 58 million children live in rural areas while their parents work in towns or cities.
  3. Urban children enjoy 89% of the country’s book resources while rural children only benefit from 11%.

The Situation of Rural Children and Reading Deficiency

  • Reading Deficiency: Villages are far away from bookstores and libraries in cities. Most youngsters and children in rural areas face difficulty in buying and reading books. In recent years, authorities have actively promoted the “Rural Library” project to encourage reading. But only 1/5 of the library collection consists of children’s books, which barely meets rural children’s needs.
  • Lack of Guidance: The “Exami-nation First” concept shared by schools and families has shackled kids’ freedom to read. Short of proper guidance, kids are prone to love images more than words. Utilitarianism is prioritized over general art education. Reading is therefore much undervalued.
  • Shortage of Public Cultural Faci-lities: Rural regions are relatively backward in terms of economic development. Public facilities and public cultural services are limited. The number of rural libraries is not enough. Book collections are small in number. Rural children find it difficult to enjoy public read-ing services.
  • Lack of Good Family Reading Atmosphere: Rural parents are generally less well educated. Child-ren grow up in an atmosphere that is not conducive to reading. Most rural children have parents who are working far away from their home villages for long periods of time so these kids do not receive the same care and home-based education that other children enjoy.
Chapter 9 – 12