New books to ignite love for reading

New books to ignite love for reading
Ms Michelle Elizabeth Rajlal conducting a literature class at Tanjong Katong Secondary School. She says acting out scenes can get students excited about stories.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Most people are familiar with Frankenstein as a horror story written a long time ago about a science experiment that goes tragically wrong.

But the 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley - a literature text for some 16-year-old students here - also touches on timeless themes of belonging and what it means to be human.

To shine a light on its relevance today, Hwa Chong Institution teacher Liew Pei Li paired it with a short story written by Canadian writer Yann Martel.

"The idea is to put both texts next to each other and see how they discuss topics such as marginalisation and alienation," she said.

While Frankenstein is about a scientist and his monstrous creation, the Yann Martel story The Moon Above His Head is about a Somali refugee who goes to Canada.

"We discuss things like displaced communities and asylum-seeking, and look at how the "creature" sees the world," said Ms Liew.

"There is a greater sense of reflection when students look at both stories."

Indeed, schools are exposing students to more contemporary literature in an effort to make the subject more relevant to them.

Educators said modern texts can help reignite the waning interest in literary studies as they carry themes and topics that students can relate to, and often prompt discussions in the classroom.

Over the last two decades, the numbers of students taking pure literature at the O levels has fallen, from 16,970 (47.9 per cent of the Secondary 4 cohort) to 3,100 (10 per cent) last year.

Educators said an early reason for the decline was the perception that it was a hard subject in which to get a good grade, which would then pull down the school's ranking, an initiative introduced in the early 1990s.

The rankings are gone but reading habits of young people have also changed, and many now interact with a screen in their spare time, instead of reading a book.

The slide in interest in literature continues, one that concerns Singapore literati, who argue that the study of the written word is much more than learning the language.

To enthuse students and get them to read more widely, several schools have started to use texts published more recently.

Most O-level literature texts are those published before the 1990s.

St Patrick's School mixes it up by introducing contemporary texts for lower-secondary students, usually picked by a teacher in charge of the school library and who works with the National Library Board to promote reading.

Students have read books such as The Kite Runner, written in 2003, and Wonder, published in 2012.

Mrs Juliana Er, the school's head of department for English and literature, said the idea is to "expose students to a variety of books and get them to read".

Meanwhile, St Anthony's Canossian Secondary School designed a curriculum in 2012 to introduce lower-secondary students to more literary genres, including modern and local texts.

Teachers are now teaching a variety of texts, ranging from Roald Dahl's Landlady and Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet to Kevin, a short story by Catherine Lim, and Back In The Playground Blues, a poem by Adrian Mitchell.

Mrs Jannine Kuah, the school's subject head for literature, said: "Not many teenagers seem to enjoy reading these days, so we are really thinking about making literature more accessible for them."

This year, 58 of its Secondary 3 students are taking elective literature and 70 are reading pure literature. The former is a half subject that is paired with another half subject, such as geography or history.

In 2008, just 13 students chose pure literature at the Secondary 3 level and, in 2012, when the school started offering elective literature, fewer than 20 girls opted for the subject.

Literature educators said a wider range of texts introduces contemporary global issues to young people.

Said Assistant Professor Suzanne Choo, from the National Institute of Education (NIE): "The syllabus should include more voices. You can introduce newer texts and get students to compare them with traditional works."

The idea is also to go through more works and cover them more quickly. She said: "Currently, upper-secondary literature students may spend two years studying a novel and a play.

"However, there's a need to move away from such detailed close study as students become over-familiar with the contents of the text.

"The result is a perception that what they are studying is less relevant to current realities."

Prof Choo, who is from NIE's English Language and Literature Academic Group, is pushing teachers to be comfortable with introducing new books to their students.

She has come up with a list of 36 newer titles - reading all of them herself - and challenges her trainee teachers to read at least 20 books in their 12 months working for their post-graduate diploma in education.

Associate Professor Angelia Poon, who is also from NIE, said: "There must be a greater attempt to bring in more contemporary texts and get students interested in the world as it is now."

It does not matter if a book is not part of an acknowledged canon, or if it is a commercial bestseller.

"It has to be rich and complex enough to allow for discussion of its language and style," she said.

"It has to also offer real-world issues for students to grapple with and challenge them to think."

At the same time, the aim is not to neglect the literary canon of tried-and-tested works. Teachers try to bring these texts to life through various modern means.

Said Ms Michelle Elizabeth Rajlal, who teaches literature in Tanjong Katong Secondary School: "It can be quite daunting to dive straight into a text and, for Shakespeare, students are scared of the language.

"So at the start of the year, we get students to read the plays out loud so that they can feel the language and understand the expressions.

"We'll do poetry slams, act out scenes and tableaus to try and get them excited about stories."

Old or new, a story can speak volumes if one will only read it.

And schools are hoping that by breaking the mould, more young people will do so.

This article was first published on Nov 02, 2015.
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