Pearl Lee

Familiarity breeds a love for reading

Last month, The Straits Times reported that more secondary schools are using Singaporean works to teach literature - 32, up from 18 in 2011. Two writers give their take on the move, and what this means for students' literary education.

When I was in university, I had a part-time job as a tutor. I taught English to twin girls in secondary school for two years. For a few months, we did neither comprehension nor composition. Instead, we spent our weekly sessions deciphering Shakespeare's Macbeth, which they had to read for literature.

The girls had problems understanding the story. They often complained about the archaic language which seemed alien to them, especially when they already struggled with modern English. They even had problems with the characters' names and often misspelt and mispronounced Banquo, who in the play was murdered by Macbeth.

It's been years now and I don't remember how they did for the subject. But what I'm sure of is Macbeth did nothing to cultivate a love of reading in them.

The girls spoke Mandarin at home and were less proficient in English - similar to many of their peers. Reading was a chore - even more so in 17th century verse.

They eventually gave up reading the book altogether and depended solely on guide books and notes printed by their literature teacher. It was what all their classmates were doing, they said.

I thought of the two girls recently, when I reported on how literature teachers in neighbourhood schools are using Singaporean works to get the students to enjoy literature.

There are 32 secondary schools using local works to teach literature. They include Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School, North View Secondary School and Junyuan Secondary School. More than 70 secondary schools offer literature to their students.

Teachers who use Singaporean works said the students relate better with people and situations similar to themselves. Stories set in Singapore, characters with Singaporean names and activities that Singaporeans do, make local literature more accessible to these students, many of whom rarely read a book for pleasure.

An author I spoke to said most of the students in neighbourhood schools do not have a reading habit, and it is especially important to hook them into the subject with something accessible.

The introduction to literature, he said, should be fun and relatable. Instead of delving into a deep understanding of complex literature, the task at the secondary school level should be to make students love and enjoy reading, and make them want to read more.

To be fair, no one doubts that there is much to learn and enjoy from reading classics such as Shakespeare and Dickens. But doing so requires a level of proficiency in the English language and is certainly not for beginners.

Macbeth may be a great play, but it only dampened my two young charges' interest in literature and reading.

Students with stronger English language skills may be able to enjoy English literary classics. But for students with a poorer command of English, perhaps Singaporean literature is a good place to start. The two local works included in the Education Ministry's literature syllabus are Telltale, a collection of 11 short stories by writers such as Alfian Sa'at and Wena Poon, and Everything But The Brain, a play by Jean Tay.

More neighbourhood schools should consider using these texts for their literature students.

The number of students taking literature has dropped drastically in the last 20 years. In 2012, there were 3,000 students compared with 16,970 in 1992. Some secondary schools have even stopped offering literature to O-level students completely or have limited it to a small class. Literature was reputedly "difficult" and hard to score in. But rather than skip literature altogether, more schools can consider teaching literature using local books.

Literature teaches us about life and empathy, and to look at situations from various viewpoints. Through stories, we connect with a world bigger than ours and understand aspects of social issues, philosophy and history.

If local literature allows teachers to have such discussions with their students and offers more accessibility than the classics, then it should be encouraged.

Reading works by fellow Singaporeans also tells our students that there are local writers worth reading and studying. It supports the local writing scene and debunks the self-deprecating attitude some hold, that Singaporeans can't write as well as our Western counterparts.

More than that, reading works by fellow Singaporeans tells students that they, too, can write. It can encourage students to put their imagination to paper and pen their own stories. This will train their writing muscles and allow them to gain more confidence in the language. And then maybe, after that, they will be able to appreciate Shakespeare's Macbeth.