Obiageli Nnamani is passionate about several things; paramount though, is her passion for teaching children and teenagers to read and it’s no wonder; she is an English Lecturer. Founder of the Holy Child Reading Club in Enugu, Mrs Nnamani has experienced first-hand, the joys of teaching a child to read and on the reverse side, the anguish of herding an ‘un-reading’ generation who assault the English language at every turn and make gaffes at constructing even the simplest of letter. Read this interview; I promise you, it will make you want to …read!
KA: It is a pleasure to have you on Konnect Africa. Kindly tell us a little about yourself?
Obiageli: My name is Obiageli Nnamani. I teach English in Enugu State University of Science & Technology, [ESUT] Agbani. My husband is the late Justice Chukwura Nnamani of the Federal High Court. We have 5 children.
Obiageli: I attended St Maria Goretti Secondary School, Benin City. From there I proceeded to read English in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka [UNN] where I made the best result in the 1985/86 academic session. In all modesty, I believe that my exposure to reading at a tender age had a lot to do with my success story.
KA: Of all the things you could do, why did you decide to start a reading club?
Obiageli: First, I have a passion for reading and second, there is a great need for reading or book clubs across the country. Let me explain a bit; I am a product of pleasure reading. I grew up in my hometown, Ibusa, Delta State and my mother made us read story books and write summaries of the books we read. We subscribed to the then Bendel State Mobile Library.
After I discovered the terrible consequences of not reading among our young people, I saw the need for a reading club and began to nurse the desire to open one. I began to buy every single text I found on reading. Thanks to the Vice- Chancellor of UNN, Prof Bartho Okolo, the UNN Bookshop provides current textbooks on various fields, the kind of books you find in Amazon.com and Stones Bookshop, Oxford Street, London. After all my research, I still lacked the courage to open a club until an NUC-speed reading workshop I attended. My Vice-Chancellor, Prof Cyprian Onyeji, sponsored two lecturers from ESUT to that workshop. We were exposed to the ‘Readers’ Edge software’ championed by Prof Emeka Okoli and Festus Azarah. Essentially, we were trained in speed reading and were encouraged to open reading clubs back home. Armed with print and now computer based reading instructions, I could no longer hold back. I felt it was time to take my product to town. The roles played by these two young dynamic Vice –Chancellors, Prof Bartho Okolo and Prof Cyprian Onyeji, underscores the place of leaders in development. Without the relevant books and computer-facilitated speed reading training that equipped me for what am doing, my dream may have remained just that: a dream.
KA: You mentioned the ‘terrible consequences of not reading’…kindly explain.
Obiageli: My experience as a teacher of English in the university for over two decades has deepened my conviction that if Nigerian children are exposed to pleasure reading at a young age, universities will no longer churn out unemployable graduates; graduates who cannot write simple official letters. These days’ children prefer watching television to reading and to overcome this challenge, parents send their children to Summer School which is good but children also need a break from reading school subjects especially during the holiday.
Reading school subjects requires intensive reading and intensive reading is demanding and tedious because you are reading to recall. Unfortunately, that’s the only type of reading a majority of our kids are exposed to and that is part of the reason they hate reading. Variety is the spice of life except in marriage. A reading club offers readers a conducive atmosphere for a more relaxed type of reading: reading for pleasure. Embedded in reading for pleasure are other types of reading like skimming, scanning etc. When they fall in love with reading, it is easier for them to cope with the reading requirements at school. Today because most children don’t enjoy reading, they resort to cheating. We can’t bend trees. I learnt that in ESUT. We must catch them young.
Today, you hear many youths use the phrase “…as in as in ….” This is a sign of word bankruptcy. Readers in the course of reading, unknowingly build up a ‘word bank’ where a rich variety of words for different occasions are stored. Armed with such reserve, the speaker is hardly ever in lack of the appropriate word for any occasion. A person who cannot express himself without using the phrase “as in” simply doesn’t have the right words for the right occasion. In the past, at age 12, many of us parents were reading newspapers. Today, even young adult children of elites are not reading newspapers. If you find them with one, they are looking for the fashion page; it’s pathetic.
KA: What is the modus operandi at the Holy Child Reading Club [HCRC]?
Obiageli: At the Holy Child Reading Club, we read, read, and read! Children read anything and everything they can handle: comics, newspapers, story books. The more you read, the more you know how to read. They also learn to listen. That’s part of it. At HCRC we use every conceivable trick to entice children to read. We have different categories of readers. Within each category, you discover that all the kids do not have the same performance ability. We attend to them according to their reading levels using all the reading methods. For a certain group, for instance, we use the alphabetic method, the phonic method the whole language method, the look and say method, Nursery rhymes, music, games etc. For the other groups, we use other methods. We have different methods for different age groups. HCRC is set to win children over to love reading as a form of entertainment, not just in order to pass examinations. We make our kids write about what they read. We correct their sentences and as they do their corrections, they get better and better in writing. By the time, they have spent six months to one year doing this, they become proficient at writing. There are no short cuts. Thomas Hudson says ‘Readers must read like writers in order to write like writers.’
KA: Why should anyone recommend HCRC over other reading clubs?
Obiageli: Holy Child Reading Club is Christ-centred and research driven. We don’t want our children to gain the whole world and lose their souls. Scripture says train a child the way he should go and when he grows up, he won’t depart from it. Catching them young is applicable both to knowing the Lord and reading. We minister to HCRC kids especially in songs written in colourful forms. We bring the gospel message in a simple and entertaining manner in order not to put the children off. Everything we do is learner centred.
I say we are research-driven because we see new challenges and go back to the drawing board, discover solutions and apply them. We read about a reading program in South Africa and we adapt it to our environment. For example I asked my 6 year olds to write a sentence about the book they read. None could. We went back to the drawing board and discovered alternative ways the reading coach could handle the challenge. Again we had originally planned that only the oldest category would fill writing journals. But through research, we discovered that a 2-year old could actually keep a writing journal even if it’s mere scribbling, what we would call in our local parlance: “jagajaga”. That’s their way of connecting reading with writing. It’s exciting.
HCRC is a laboratory where we put into practice our research findings on reading instructions. It is evidence- based learning effort geared towards building sustained interest in the art of reading. It is a step in the right direction. Because it worked for my siblings and I in a village setting, without any formal structures, I am confident the HCRC experiment will work given time and consistency.
KA: Did you say 2-year olds? Isn’t a 2-year old -a mere toddler- too young to attend a reading club?
Obiageli: No. The first 6 years is crucial in early learning. In advanced countries, parents read to babies. Two year olds are more difficult to handle, though. They get bored easily so we have to be sensitive to their needs. Because it’s pleasure reading, children are free to leave the reading teacher and start playing. It’s part of the bait. We don’t force them. We keep wooing them until they are ready for the books. We move at their pace.
KA: How do you gauge the results of the work you do?
Obiageli: Children have different performance abilities. This implies that they all have different points of arrival. When you put children in a pool, you don’t expect all the children to be equally skilled or all at ease with water. All that matters is that each child is more skilled or more at ease with reading as time progresses. I see the results of our work when children, on their own volition, curl in a corner to read a story book or when parents report that they have to scold their children to drop their story books and go do the dishes. When a child has reached this stage, the child is hooked to reading for life and the benefits are huge; studying school subjects will no longer be a chore. Lesson teachers will be unnecessary except for technical subjects like Mathematics and Additional Mathematics, Technical Drawing, Accounting. Giordano Bruno describes reading as “the first button on the garment of education. If the first button on a man’s coat is wrongly buttoned, the rest are certain to be crooked.”
KA: Could a reading club be detrimental to helping children learn their mother tongue?
Obiageli: First, research confirms that children have the ability to learn more than two languages at the same time. So a reading club does not foreclose learning our mother tongue. Secondly, despite our loyalty to our mother tongue, nobody can deny the English language its place as a global language. We cannot make significant progression in the global stage when we speak good English only with great difficulty. William Garbe puts it this way: ‘Reading skills do not guarantee success for anyone, but success is much harder to come by without being a skilled reader.’
KA: There’s no gain without pain or so the saying goes. What are your challenges?
Obiageli: Parents are in a hurry. They want change overnight. They want microwaved readers. After two weeks, a parent was unhappy because she hadn’t noticed changes in her daughter. As a people we are too result- oriented. We don’t care about content, about the journey; all we want is the destination. That is why we have worthless certificates. Success according to John Maxwell is what you do every day, not a destination and I share this view. Relishing reading is a culture; it’s a way of life. Learning a new culture takes time, patience and consistency. Apart from patience and consistency, teaching this life style requires support from parents. Parents need to do a follow up at home: Less television and provision of the kind of books the child likes.
Another challenge is our need for more books. Great readers in our midst are consuming our stock very rapidly. We need to keep providing interesting and current books so the children want to keep coming. Some children are tearing books and destroying toys. These things need to be replaced to maintain the standard.
Governments of First world countries know that acquiring the reading skill is critical to the development of their citizens, the UK, US governments and Foundations spend huge sums of money to help children swim against the tide. These governments invest heavily on reading -teacher development trainings, they give grants to researchers to discover the best ways to teach children to read, they give incentives to children who are reading, and they attach reading coaches to support efforts of teachers of English in schools. They have made reading a separate subject. Private individuals and Non-governmental organizations are setting up book and reading clubs in homes to complement government efforts. Oprah Winfrey had a fantastic TV Book show that made Americans read more. We need more of such things over here.
KA: Inspire an African Youth with one Sentence:
Obiageli: Reading is the first button on the garment of education. If the first button on a man’s coat is wrongly buttoned, the rest are certain to be crooked~ Giordano Bruno
This interview was edited and adapted with the permission of its subject from the KNOW Magazine.