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Help teenagers develop critical reading skills through newspapers

Ms Leslie Davis from the British Council Singapore says reading the newspapers daily will expose teenagers to a wide range of topics very quickly.
Ms Leslie Davis from the British Council Singapore says reading the newspapers daily will expose teenagers to a wide range of topics very quickly.ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

One of the biggest complaints from teachers, according to Ms Leslie Davis from the British Council Singapore, is their students' lack of general knowledge. This is apparent from their classroom performance and writing.

The 38-year-old American is a training consultant who has been working with Singapore school educators and parents in the last seven years.

She suggests encouraging teen-agers to read the newspapers daily, which exposes them to a wide range of topics very quickly.

Let them decide what they are interested in, whether it is an article on the front page or in the sports section.

"Choices are really a powerful motivator and not to be underestimated," says Ms Davis, who is also a positive psychology and emotional intelligence practitioner, and helps teachers and students establish positive relationships.

Newspaper articles are great because they are short and do not take up much reading time. That is always good when you are competing with devices and other interests for your children's time, she says.

It is also important to teach them critical reading skills and guide them on picking up news from credible sources.

Instead of telling them why they should not be reading certain websites or publications, she suggests having a discussion around that.

For example, parents can say: "Let's pick up another source and see if it presents the article in the same way and what the differences are."

After all, if you ban children from reading what they want, it will often just make them dig their heels in, she adds.

Critical reading is not just about differentiating opinions from facts, it is also thinking deeply and asking questions.

"That's something I think students don't do a lot of because they get asked questions all day, so they don't even know that it's their job to ask questions of the sources that they're reading," she says.

An important skill is to examine the same subject matter from multiple perspectives, then make connections. "And your general knowledge will be more sophisticated," she adds.

Seeing life through different eyes

Beyond some of the old classics such as Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, there are many young adult novels that can expose students to diverse perspectives and support critical reading. Ms Leslie Davis from the British Council Singapore recommends four books.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio 

"This is by far my favourite young adult novel of the last decade. Palacio tells the story from different viewpoints, so readers can see how everyone's experience in life is different, even our experiences of the same events. The story will help you develop empathy, compassion and admiration.

"A movie version was released in 2017, so for bonus critical reading points, you can talk about why the book and movie are different and try to consider the choices of the author and director."

The One And Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate 

"This is a story about an unusual friendship told from the perspective of a gorilla in captivity. This story will help readers see the world through different eyes and consider the experiences of living beings that can't speak for themselves.

"Disney has just released the movie, so you can pair this with the movie-viewing as a treat after finishing the book."

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

"Don't be afraid of graphic novels. Visual literacy is on the Singapore (school) syllabus and it's important to include images in your 'critical reading'.

"This book is a palpable depiction of the struggle of immigration, but young people will also connect with the themes of feeling out of place. The main character can't communicate in words, so images represent his experience."

Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne 

"Storybooks can have sophisticated themes and combine visual and written literacy skills. Here, the author encourages you to consider class and power through the 'voices' of four characters.

"Once you start looking closely at the images, you will see the hidden messages that reinforce the themes of the book."

•This is part of a series where experts give tips on how to get kids to love reading.

•For more stories on how to help your child succeed in school and life, go to the Smart Parenting microsite at str.sg/smartparenting

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2020, with the headline 'Help teenagers develop critical reading skills through newspapers'. Subscribe