Are we killing the joy of reading?

By July 31, 2017Education

In this library, children like to “cook the books” in the toy oven (Source: Smith, 2017)

In preparation for a course on “Literacies” I’m teaching this semester, I spent the weekend going through some of my diaries for observations on literacy practices. I was particularly interested to look back at my notes from the early 2000s when I frequently visited library spaces designed for pre-school children. One surprising observation that stood out from those notes was the heavy use of baby wipes and hand sanitizers in those spaces.

For instance, in October 2004 I observed a mother sitting in the children’s section of a Sydney bookstore on a tiny children’s chair with a one-year-old on her lap. Mother and child had the display copy of a touch-and-feel book in front of them. The mother dragged the child’s hand over the textured item and repeatedly pronounced the adjective that went with the texture (“soft”, “rough”, “bumpy”). After each stroke, the mother wiped the baby’s hand with a wet wipe. I observed the activity for around ten minutes but it had begun before I arrived and still went on when I left. As the touch-and-feel book only had four or five pages, the activity seemed extremely tedious. The scene is still etched in my mind because of the mother’s serious dedication to this activity which, to me, seemed boring, contrived and ill-considered. I’ve never been a fan of touch-and-feel books because I don’t think they are a good way to experience texture and to hone the sense of touch; much richer experiences are available in “the real world”, both in the home and, even more so, in nature. To overlay books over nature in this way diminishes the joy of both.

This was not an isolated observation; and I have a fair number of records of dutiful but joyless interactions between carers and young children in the children’s sections of bookstores and public libraries. Many carers seemed to regard it as their duty to bring their young children to such spaces. Once there, they would go into “teacher-mode” and try and get their children to engage with books in a very narrow way resonant of formal teaching: usually making children look at a book while trying to get them to sit still on the adult’s lap or in a stroller. And wherever toddlers and preschoolers got to touch books, baby wipes and hand sanitizers never seemed far away. Did these adults think the literacy bug is a germ?

Marketing a school-like approach to early literacy

These observations provide evidence that a discourse about the importance of early reading for children’s schools success is readily available and imbues contemporary parenting. Many parents in the middle-class suburbs of my observations are evidently keen to set children on the path of reading and formal literacy learning from a very young age. But what will children actually learn from practices such as those described here? That reading is a matter of duty but also something dirty?

My – admittedly unsystematic – observations are not unique to Australian libraries, as a recent study in a public library in a small town in the UK demonstrates (Smith, 2017). There, the researcher found that the children’s section of the library was designed as an extension of a school space. Support for children’s school work was the key aim of the space, as the librarians explained and as was evident from the presence of reading scheme books, educational posters about the benefits of reading or workbooks.

Mothers dutifully seemed to bring their children to that library, too, but – maybe in a point of difference from the Sydney tiger mothers I described above – had little interest in engaging with children’s literacy practices themselves. Instead, they focused on their smartphones or chatted with other mums and left the children largely to their own devices. The children, perhaps unsurprisingly, preferred the toys available in the children’s corner over the books. Apparently, a favorite activity was to place books in a toy oven and to “cook the books”.

The idea that early literacy is beneficial to children and they need to be exposed to books as early as possible is now ubiquitous. In addition to librarians, teachers and parenting experts, the idea is also promoted by retailers: most supermarkets now sell all kinds of learning toys intended to promote early reading, school-readiness and “the joy of learning.”

The catch is that the activities I have described above and those examined by Helen Victoria Smith are not joyful. Having one’s little hand dragged over some random surface while hearing isolated vocabulary items and having the same hand wiped down every few seconds must seem more like a punishment than like fun.

What books do best is open up our imagination, they expand our minds and they allow us to travel across time and space. Above all, they allow us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Are we making it harder for our children to discover the joy of books, the joy of reading and the joy of learning precisely by turning literacy practices into a utilitarian duty that is all about school-readiness and learning the alphabet?

Related content


Smith, H. V. (2017). Cooking the Books: What Counts as Literacy for Young Children in a Public Library? Literacy, n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1111/lit.12121

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • 44209150

    Honestly, I have never seen”touch-and-feel” the books before because the books for kids I have ever come across so far are mainly paper comic ones. The insensitive action of the mother at Sydney bookstore unintentionally gave other people a view of the disadvantage of “touch-and-feel”books due to public bacterial hand contamination. This post also reminds me of the current situation in my hometown where parents try to familiarize with literacy acquisition at the very early age. Actually, building up the reading habit for kids at the young age is a good idea. However, the main point emphasized here is that the carers should let children have access to reading materials and facilities such as ipads or tablets in a proper way, not like two examples of the above-mentioned mothers. Children should be given opportunities to develop their interest, imagination and creativity through coming into contact with the well chosen reading books. Plus, reading books to kids should also be a good way to establish the reader and kids connection.

  • vy ha

    Reading article reminds me of a little boy I used to babysit who read children books out of pure joy. I remember when I first met him and his parents, I noticed that they didn’t actually brought him to the library or anything but bought him a lot of books about animals and allow him to watch documentaries about them as well. Over time he develops a fascination toward nature and the animal world. He expressed that kind of love to his dog and later adopt a pig.

  • Katherine Douglas

    My first impressions of books probably happened when I was under 5 years. Something I enjoyed was walking into the local library with my mother, noticing the smell of books, and the feel of them turning the pages. Reading the stories always took me to new worlds and places, but no one wiped my hands, or the pages of the books as we went.

    I understand that caregivers want to take care of the books, and children do make messes occasionally. However, if they spend more time wiping books, won’t children associate books with cleaning, rather than enjoying reading uninterrupted? And consequently, they are turned off from reading for fun?
    Letting children experience reading as a joy and a privilege is important, especially when they are young. Yes, they should try to take care of their/other’s belongings, but home and libraries are just that – not museums trying to preserve books forever. If there are a few marks here and there, but the child is engaged with a book and enjoying themselves, I think that’s the main thing.

  • Kyungmin Lee

    This article made me look back at my childhood. I was not the one who was really keen to read or was easily fascinated by any kinds of books. As my older sister had read all the books collected on our shelves, my parents thought I would do the same thing some time soon and never wanted to give up on me. However, the pressure of extensive reading from my parents did take my interest in reading itself. Unfortunately, I started to find it interesting to read quite late in life. When I first knew I am also able to read for fun, it was later than 18 and in English. So I, contradictorily enjoy reading books in English while I cannot in Korean. I still think what if I had not been forced to read earlier in my life. Indeed, it must have affected my literacy proficiency considerably.

  • swati sharma

    It is good to keep your child clean and dirt free, but i feel that the children should be left free so that they become nature friendly. As a psychologist i have seen parents being over protective for their children which results that children do not have the confidence to face the real world alone. So through this article i would like to aware all the parents that please set your children free right from the beginning and make them nature friendly because nature is that mother which teaches us many things which the parents and the teachers can not even teach at any stage.

    Secondly, I have also noticed that reading books has somewhere lost its charm among the children with the advancement of the technology. Earlier the children used to read the story books, cartoon books or their text books, newspapers. But now even the course books are in the form of e-books, cartoon books have been replaced by the tv shows, newspapers by the news updates on the phones.

    I remember that in my school one period was the reading period, in which we were supposed to bring a book of our own choice and read it. This school practice developed my reading habit. This same practice should be done by every school so that children develop the habit of reading books again. This will not only develop their reading skills but will also enhance their knowledge and will also keep them away from the electronic gadgets for some time.

  • Hayu Austina

    My friends and I experienced assisting an 8-year old boy who became totally blind when he was 6. The primary schools in his village will accept him with one condition: “He knows how to read and write in Braille alphabets”. Instead of forcing him to learn Braille alphabets, we read some children storybooks for him. He enjoyed listening to the stories. One day, when he was taking a bath, we heard him acting out some parts of the stories. From that time, he always asks his mother to read books for him. We believe that these are parts of his learning process before he is ready to learn Braille alphabets.

  • Nancy

    This article reminds me of my experience with my 4-year-old brother. I used to get him to sit still on my lap and read some stories from a children’s book. It is important to note that all stories are written in English- which is not his mother tongue. After 5 minutes, he got bored and refused to listen to the stories. At first, I thought lack of English language proficiency and “not-so-joyful” reading method inhibited him from enjoying the stories. Therefore, I decided to choose another book which was full of vivid images and just had a few words and encouraged his engagement by pointing at the pictures and asked questions, with the hope of provoking his interest towards the reading and the language itself. However, the situation remained unchanged. After that, I realized that each individual is different. One method which can be considered suitable for one person may not work with the others. Therefore, it is imperative to acknowledge individual differences to find the most effective learning strategies.

  • Gin Parrish

    Perhaps, children, especially toddlers, tend to learn better by playing and interacting with the objects, stories and real people. For example, they can learn about different kinds of plants and animals by seeing, touching them, listening to their sounds; they learn languages by imitating and interacting with their parents and siblings.

    Therefore, I suggest that there are other ways to make literacy acquisition become a more engaging and meaningful experience, such as through storytelling, bed-time stories and making scrapbooks. Parents can enrich their children’s experience by giving them more control over their learning, for example, letting them hold the book and turn between pages, name things in the pictures, mimic the sounds of animals, finish the end of some sentences or guess what will happen next. The parents can also encourage and help their children to make their own scrapbooks, where they can later on write down some basic words and sentences.

    To sum up, I believe that early reading should be all about having fun, and the parents should view it as a great opportunity to have bonding time with their kids, as well as a great way to develop their children’s cognition, imagination and literacy skills.

  • Roxxan

    Thanks for the open-minded post. With the technology developing, books are no longer the only way to gain information. Comparing with the high-tech products such as smart phones, television, computer and radio, books becomes less popular among adults. As parents are the best teachers for children, it may be difficult for children enjoy reading books when their parents seldom reading. Furthermore, as Chinese primary education is only to cater the demand of examinations, reading for students in this level can be regard as a necessary behavior to pass the exam. When reading becomes an activity that students have to do for exam, how could these students enjoy when they reading?

  • zhao valencia

    After reading this post for the first time, i went to the public library in Chatswood, Burwood and Top Ryde to conduct my own observation. To my surprise, this topic has never occurred to me before. I always relate young kids with noise, crying, and crawling around on a mat. I was shocked how much patience and meaningless repetitions the mothers was doing and I told myself I would never ever be like that. This is a waste of life. Learning happens naturally, everywhere, every moments. It exists in each interaction with the people, the surrounding setting, along with the natural elements. From my perspective, the bed-time story serves much more significant role in early literacy teaching.


    This post reminds me of our stance and its problems in terms of reading a book and transmitting the joy of reading to our children. When I was a kid, I remember, my mother used to take my brother and me to a bookstore to pick out a book to read on every children’s day. Even it is hard to remember for me when it was the last time that I felt the texture and myself that fells into the story as I passed a page of book. To pass down the joy to our next generation, we should not forget the joy of reading first.

  • Ka Ho Lawrence HO

    Dear Professor Piller and fellow classmates,

    Learning through play is well recognised as one the most effective way to learn. After reading this post, I did a mini online research on how learning through play can help English learning from journal articles. I found a journal article which include some interesting findings. Jin et al. (2014) investigate that with proper teaching strategies and adapting learning through play appropriately, students’ motivation towards learning English can be further enhanced. It is because students are delighted and excited in acquiring English through this way. This can also cultivate students’ interest in English through reading, as it is a compulsory thing we need to do every day.
    I would like to share one of my own personal experience here when I started learning English: my nanny who brought me up showed me flash cards with pictures when I was 14-month-old. I still remember I was attracted by those diagrams and I love learning English since then.

    Just some thoughts,


    Jin, L., Liang, X., Jiang, C., Zhang, J., Yuan, Y. & Xie, Q. (2014). Studying the motivations of Chinese young EFL learners through metaphor analysis. ELT Journal, 68(3), 286–298.

  • MB24

    Thank you Professor Piller for a fascinating article. What I enjoy most of all about reading to my young children is the laughter they spontaneously erupt into as I read a particular passage they find funny. I do understand the pressures of doing your utmost as a parent to ensure your child succeeds and part of the difficulty is a lack of insight into your own parenting approach. Clearly, the way a parent parents their child is critical for the child’s development. Hopefully children who do not experience a joy of reading from a parent have other avenues to gain a joy of reading.