One of the activities in our Oral English textbook, which is published in the UK, asks the students to pair up and tell each other about a book they read as a child. Easy enough, right?
Well, that’s what I assumed. In fact, it was not an easy task, because for a fair number of my students, the only books they had as kids were their textbooks in primary school. For these students hailing from the countryside, their first real chance to read a book for pleasure didn’t come until they boarded out to middle school.
When I give my students this kind of assignment, I usually let them talk among themselves. If the hubbub seems to be winding down, I’ll ask a few of them to tell the class what they’d been discussing with their partner.
Other times, I’ll join a group, or a student will ask me a question and I’ll stay and chat for bit. On this occasion, that’s what happened.
Astrid R., Cleo, Penny and Laurel were deep in conversation when one of them — Astrid R. maybe — called me over to ask the English title of a book. (I’ve forgotten which book now.) So, I asked each of the four which books they had read as kids.
I assumed too much.
In fact, of the four, only Astrid R. — the R. distinguishes her from her classmate Astrid Q. — had read a book for pleasure as a child. Astrid is a city kid from Hohhot, and her elementary school had a small library.
The others all grew up in the countryside. The only books they had were their school textbooks, not exactly the kind of book you read avidly.
Cleo explained that her parents had very little education, and kept no books at home. Her mom left school after the 6th grade, and her father the 8th, and both were workers. As for Cleo, when she came home from school, she’d go out to play with her friends. Reading a book was really not something she would have considered, she said.
Penny and Laurel had similar stories. Unlike Astrid R., whose parents are college educated, their parents were farmers or workers with barely a middle school education. Cleo, Penny and Laurel were the first in their families to attend college.That part I already knew. Most of my students here come from rural families and are more educated than their parents or grandparents. But with my blinkers on, I never once considered the simple consequences of growing up in the Chinese countryside.
I mean now I realize it makes sense. I suppose at a certain intellectual level I probably suspected as much, but I was frankly dumbfounded by what these four girls told me. No school libraries until middle school. No story books or chapter books at home as a child.
Wow. I felt really stupid.
During class with the other section, I chatted with Lotus, who had no partner. I asked her about her childhood, and she echoed what the three in the first class had told me.
Lotus was a “left behind” child. Her parents are among the millions of migrant workers in China who leave the farm to work in factories in the big cities, so they can send their children to school. So, Lotus was raised by her grandparents, like many, many other Chinese kids.
Her grandparents had less education than even her parents. Though they were literate, reading was not something they did at all. And Lotus said her first experience reading a novel was in middle school, when she borrowed The Little Prince from the school library.
At this juncture, I need to tell you that these five students are among my best. Cleo and Lotus have been class officers, despite both being rather shy. Both have excellent speaking and listening skills. Laurel, who is also very quiet, has an impressive English vocabulary. Penny’s skills are average, but she’s outgoing and talkative, and Astrid R. struggles in listening class, but can talk your ear off given the chance.
In other words, they’ve made up for the time lost.
A few years ago, I wrote about one of my English teacher prep classes, an all-female class of 40 who pounced on a collection of used books from America like hungry tigers. They were three-year students working on a teacher education diploma, not a bachelor degree. In the Chinese system, this indicates their college entrance exam (gaokao) scores were not so hot — too low to be admitted to a bachelor degree program but not low enough to be totally denied access to post-secondary education. The nearest equivalent in the USA would be a vocational degree.
In other words, they’ve made up for the time lost.
Looking back on that incident, which completely changed my attitude toward that class, I now realize those girls were hungry for those books because they’d been denied them for so long. At the time, I didn’t delve into their personal histories, but I can assume (for this is common in American schools, too) their teachers, thinking them to be below average students didn’t bother to entice them into reading anything but their textbooks.
From what my students have told me, many Chinese teachers, faced with classrooms filled with more than 50 or 60 pupils, focus only on the top third, and leave the rest to fend for themselves. That English education group of girls may well have come mostly part of that ignored — and maligned — two-thirds.
This experience reminded me — whacked me upside the head — how easy it is to make assumptions based on your own experience. I grew up in a house full of books, went to schools that had libraries and annual book fairs. That lulled me into assuming every child has that experience, even though I know intellectually such is not the case.
One of my favorite organization is Room to Read, which seeks to change that situation. Though it does not operate in China, it sponsors “reading rooms” in several other countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Tanzania, Vietnam, and Zambia. Consider sending them a donation, and help bring books to kids to who might never have seen one.