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
  • Flora Launay

    Thank you for this very interesting piece of READING.
    When I was a child, I did not like reading. I prefered maths and numbers. However, my mum had tried her best to make me enjoy books: she would read me a bedtime story every single night. I used to love these moments, and yet it did not make me like reading later on. Not that I was not good at reading, I was actually a very good reader and had high grades at school. However, I did not enjoy it at all. To me, reading was simply a school homework among others that I had to complete for everyone to be satisfied.
    I strongly believe that children should not be forced to read. We all know that the more one asks a human being to do something, the less likely they are to do it. We should let the children discover books on their own and encourage them in a positive way. Comments such as “To be smart, you should read more” or “If you can’t read properly, you won’t have a good job” defeat the purpose.

  • Khalid

    Interesting article. I think most people nowadays focus only on how to develop their children’s literacy without thinking of the suitable way of doing that. Making learning joyful is a great method, especially for children. Parents can exploit the interests of their kids to help them developing their literacy since early stage. For example, they can take advantage of the new technology such as ipad or tablet to develop the literacy of children through learning by games, puzzles or other ways that mix learning and reading in their daily habits.

  • Binisha Sharma

    This article is really appealing. When I was a child, my dad had tried his best to encourage reading habit. Reading stories or poems from English book was like every day task. And I enjoyed it a lot. However, my sister did not enjoy it.

    Children actually should enjoy learning process. They should be free to choose what and how they want to read and certainly they will be good at it. Plus, teachers and parents need to help children read using different techniques including both who like to read as well as who don’t.

  • Ha Pham

    this is a wonderful discovery. now I realize how important it is for children to get access to books as early as possible because this will help the children shape their future reading hobby and I express my strong disagreement with the mothers mentioned in the article. they cleaned their children’s hands whenever the children toughed the books. this can make the children get to consider their actions as ill-mannered. this is completely wrong. I also dislike mothers letting their children play with smartphones at an early age because it will harm the children both mentally and physically. that is my opinion.

  • rajni jaishi

    A coherent piece of writing which makes a powerful point about the importance of introducing reading as an activity among young children and at the same how it is a challenge for parents to do so in their fast-paced life. I absolutely agree with you when you say that children must be guided well and drawn towards reading in a way that is pleasant to them.
    I too think that nothing can be compared to books when it comes to letting our imagination flow and nurture creativity. Since this is an age of computers and smart phones, it’s easier for children to adapt to digital ways of learning which can ruin the pure joy of reading from an early stage.

  • Dwitiya Nugrahaeni

    Hello, Professor

    It is indeed true that many parents nowadays seem to force their kids to read. Their involvement in this process is somehow too little or too much. Parents taking their kids to a public library while keeping themselves busy with their phones is a very common thing to see. One thing that I noticed once was parents’ too-much involvement in their kids’ reading process. I saw this 4 or 5-year-old kid was opening a children’s book with pictures in it. He moved from one page to another randomly, seemed to try to find pictures that he liked. His mother, surprisingly, forced him to read it in order, from page one, two, and so on. I saw that this is also one example of making reading a tedious activity. Parents’ involvement is indeed very important in children’s literacy development, but they must also be aware that their kids’ interest in reading is built from the feeling of joy and excitement while doing it. It is therefore very essential to grow this kind of feeling since the very early stage of the children’s literacy.