“I can keep this book? For real?” The wide-eyed response from the 10-year old living in a fly-in Ontario community is not unusual. For thousands and thousands of people in Canada, owning a book is rare.
On September 13th, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released Education at a Glance 2011 (EAG), their flagship indicators publication. The study revealed, amongst many other statistics, that 37% of Canadian adults do not read for pleasure. In a wealthy country that prides itself on a highly educated population, that is extremely high. There are many factors contributing to that number, but the main one is access. We know, from the years of work that we have done in rural communities, that books are a luxury. For the thousands of people living in the north and in rural areas, there are no libraries. In some larger communities with libraries, they charge for a library card, and in some cities, libraries are cutting their hours or considering closing their doors. Books can be bought on-line, but that is only an option for households with money to spare. For parents that struggle to provide food, clothing and shelter, books are very low on the priority list.
However, Frontier College has been running summer reading camps in rural communities for the last number of years, and part of that program includes providing free books for kids. Last year, we distributed almost 40,000 books across the country, and many of those books went to homes that did not have a single book otherwise. It is truly a delight to see the excitement on a child’s face when they find out that they are allowed to keep the book they have been reading. It is equally sobering to realize that if we had not provided books and reading programs, these children would go without.
A discussion that I often have with others in our business is whether it matters what people read for pleasure. While it is definitely ideal to have reading material that is diverse, age and culturally appropriate, and something that opens up a child’s mind to new concepts, that doesn’t have to come in book form. If a child reads a comic book or something on-line, I fully believe that is better than not reading at all. Those comic books could serve as the child’s gateway to book reading. If a child is engaged in reading, it can only help him or her build those muscles; like with any exercise, if those muscles aren’t used, they need even more work to be stimulated.
We believe in learner-centered studies, which mean that if you focus on what the learner wants to learn, he or she is more likely to be responsive to the process. For children, we want to make reading fun. In the summer, with the financial support of TD, we set up Reading Tents at parks and events, laying books on the floor, and encouraging young children to come in and read, or have one of our volunteers read to them. It never fails to amaze me that even if there’s face painting, bouncy castles, and clowns, kids will come in, grab a book, and read. Kids want to read; they love to have books read to them; and when the habit is established at a young age, they will continue to want to read when they are adults. But the most basic elements – access to material – has to be established first.