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Why Emmanuel Can't Read? What can be done.

Paul H. Sutherland

“What age group is the book for?” a former Parliamentarian asked, as he looked into my eyes for an answer.

“Age 0 to age 88,” I answered.

He continued looking at me, and clarified, “I mean, is it for P2? P3? P4? What classes would use it?”

“Any class,” I replied.

The reason we were chatting is because this former MP had been involved in education at the ministry level and shared my passion for education.

As if I had not heard him, he asked again, “Paul, what classes would we buy this book for?”

I responded, “We create books that tell great stories. Each page is well-illustrated. We use high-quality paper and then think about every word, every illustration, and how each page is put together. We don’t consider 'age.' We only ask ourselves, 'Is this book one that kids and even adults will love?’”

I have had dozens of conversions like this, and I think, more than anything, the conversation illustrates the root of why Emmanuel, and Hawa, and Michael, and Doris can’t read.

It seems well-meaning ministries, NGOs, head teachers, and parents buy books based on budgets, word count, or word list criteria with little thought regarding whether the child will enjoy the book. Buying books because they fit in some ancient, outdated system that decreed 7-year-olds can’t see words like INSPIRE, INCREDIBLE, CONFIDENT, HAPPINESS, or UNCOMFORTABLE because they are above the grade level is counterproductive. The goal of education is to create self-reliant learners—learners who are curious and want to grow, learn, explore, and of course, read because it is fun, fulfilling, and enjoyable.

Books are designed to entertain and teach us. We need to learn to read before we can read to learn. But the education industry has not connected that if we want children to really learn to read well, they need MOTIVATION. The best motivation is motivation that is positive and intrinsic.

There are many reasons why Emmanuel can’t read. Like the generation before them, many of today’s parents grew up in a home with no books, so they too have little connection to the importance of reading competency as a key to success. Parents also struggle to afford school fees, let alone find extra money to buy books. Today’s parents also have little time to sit and enjoy a book for even a few minutes with their child.

Emmanuel cannot read because he is caught in a cultural trap—he has been systematically taught to HATE books. He looks at books as something to drudge through because Mum, Dad, and teacher say, “Read this and shut up!” Emmanuel grew up hearing, “You can’t play until you read that book,” as if reading were the punishment and all else was the reward. Depending on his age or school, he was hit, criticized, or made to feel dumb because he read b instead of d. It did not take long for Emmanuel to become afraid of books.

When Emmanuel was young, if he had a book in the house, his dad would say “Don’t touch it! You'll spoil it.” If, on the rare occasion, he was allowed to hold the book, Mum would say, “Careful, don’t rip the page! Move your water cup away so you don’t spill on it!” Emmanuel learned one thing: Books are going to get you into trouble—stay away!

So, Emmanuel has learned, simply, that “Books are awful!”

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Why Patrick Loves Books

Patrick’s parents realized from their own life experience that if their son was going to be successful, he needed to learn to read English very, very well. They had struggled, and had little money, so they carefully planned how they used their money. Instead of giving in to his pleadings to buy whatever plastic junk was sold on the street that day, they saved their shillings to buy just one book at a time. When friends would ask what gifts to give Patrick for his birthday, his parents suggested, “Well-illustrated books.”

His parents also realized that motivation is important, and that love motivates better than fear. So, they allowed Patrick to play with the few books they owned from the time he was born. Patrick would look at the illustrations, chew on the book, play with it, and flap the pages in the air to hear the “wooshing” sound they would make. He learned that books were fun. Often, he would sit on Mom or Dad’s lap and he would simply turn the pages and look at the pictures, feeling loved and happy, interacting with his parents.

As Patrick grew his Dad would inquire, “Patrick, do you want me to tell you a story?” Patrick would grab a book, climb on Dad’s lap, and open the book. Father and son would look at the pictures together. Patrick would ask, “What does that page say, Daddy?” and Dad would not read the words, but he would respond, "The girl is riding on the boda-boda really fast. She is happy!” Patrick would continue turning the pages, and eventually stop on one as he pointed to the grandfather making a wooden bicycle. Dad would then tell a story, sometimes reading the author’s words, and other times making up his own based on the illustration on page.

Patrick learned that books were fun. His whole life, he knew that his parents loved books and loved to have him on their lap with a book, and that books were a way for them to connect with each other.

People often tell me, “Paul this idea that ‘books are toys too,’ is crazy! Kids won’t respect them and we’ll wind up with torn paper everywhere!” I can only retort, “Tell me something you love that you don’t respect?” The simple truth is, we respect what we love. If kids love books, they will respect them.

When children realize that stories are fun and entertaining, they will want you to read the book to them—and often on their own terms regarding timing and book choice. Children’s bodies are designed to be in a regular state of motion so they can grow stronger and bigger. For this reason, God never intended for children to have a lengthy attention span, so maybe a young child will only look through a few pages of a book before moving on to another activity. That is okay! Patrick could sit on his parent’s lap for hours as a toddler, looking at books and listening to their stories. His younger brother, however, found sitting still to be fun for only a few minutes at a time, after which he would dance around the room while his mother kept reading. His mother never dragged him back and implored him to sit. Both boys enjoyed books on their own terms, and today, both brothers are strong readers who love books.

So, let’s get to the psychological reasons (“book maths” as I call it) of why Patrick loves books:

  1. ​Patrick was allowed to play with and enjoy his very small collection of books when he was a baby. He learned that books connect him with caring adults, are fun to look at, make a “wooshing” sound, and can be pushed along the floor like a car.
  2. ​His parents intentionally made a positive association between books and a love-filled experience of connection and joy.
  3. Patrick's parents read books also, and would talk about what they read with him—a biography Nelson Mandela, an interesting article in the newspaper, or stories they recalled from when they were young. 
  4. ​Patrick’s parents knew that if they could get Patrick to fall in love with books he would WANT TO LEAN TO READ.
  5. They also knew he would admire and respect books, because we respect what we love.
  6. Patrick's parents believed that for children, there is no right way to read a book. If he read the book from back to front that was fine. Eventually Patrick realized on his own it was more enjoyable to start at the beginning of a book. 
  7. ​Patrick's parents did not have a lot of money and so they only had a few books. Those few books, however, were fun, well-illustrated, great stories, and designed just for them.
  8. When Patrick reached school, he did not mind that some of the books were a bit boring, or had only a few horrible sketches, or not much fun, because in his heart he knew reading and books were fun, enjoyable, and good. Patrick realized that if he learned more words, he could read even better stories. He could then read on his own and not have to wait for Mum or Dad to read to him. In fact, he could make his parents happy by reading stories to them. 
  9. The sum of this “book math” is simply, once we learn to read, we can read to learn. When we learn to read well, the world opens to us and we are no longer dependent on teachers, computers, and others to grow. We can teach ourselves. We can learn about accounting, law, medicine, art, food, success, finances, or read fantastic fiction at 3 in the morning or in the back seat of a taxi. If we can be self-learners, we can be anything we want to be—because we can teach ourselves. 

It is sad that there seems to be more Emmanuel’s than Patrick’s in Uganda, because the “book maths” of creating a reading culture in Uganda is really quite simple: We need great, fun stories that are well-illustrated and feature places, people, images and situations that UGANDA's children can relate to. A vibrant, positive, “BOOKS ARE TOYS TOO,” reading culture in Uganda is achievable. Won’t you join me?

Paul Sutherland writes on success, values, virtue, finance, and happiness for adults. With help from artists, illustrators, and his wife, he creates FANTASTIC, INCREDIBLE, BEAUTIFUL children's stories for children age 0 to 88. His books Amani the Boda-Boda Rider, Sharon’s Song,Congazori, Crash Boom Splash, and Do You Like Grasshoppers & Chapati?are distributed in Uganda by enjuba, and are available at Aristoc, Banana Boat, and other fine Ugandan book sellers.

Amani the Boda-Boda Rider, Sharon’s Song, Congazori, Crash Boom Splash, and Do You Like Grasshoppers & Chapati?were proudly, written, edited, illustrated, designed, and printed in Uganda.