“Reading adds profound qualities to your life,” says researcher Anežka Kuzmičová

After more than a decade spent abroad, mainly in Bristol and Stockholm, Czech researcher Anežka Kuzmičová is now conducting research into children’s reading at the Institute of Czech Language and Theory of Communication at Charles University. One of her team’s aims is to invite children to perceive reading as a holistic experience.

Why is it so important to develop the habit of reading? And how important is the environment in which reading takes place? These are just some of the questions I discussed with Anežka Kuzmičová, and I started by asking about the main goal of her research.

“We actually have a couple of different projects running. In one project, we talk to children about what reading is like for them, how it feels from within their minds and bodies when they enjoy stories.

“This may sound super simple, but it isn’t really, because most children have never been asked such a question. It means we have to develop whole new methods of inquiry.  The purpose of this is figuring out new and more child-centred ways of teaching literacy.

“The purpose of our research is figuring out new and more child-centred ways of teaching literacy.”

“But we also have another parallel project where we run analyses of the texts that children are given to read as part of the literacy curriculum here in Czechia. This also focuses on embodied and affective experiencing, but in terms of how it is portrayed and potentially stimulated by the official literacy materials.”

How important is the process of reading for children? Would you agree that books, to some extent, shape our personalities?

“Let me answer these questions separately. If you are asking about the importance of reading in general, I would say it’s extremely important, of course. Getting into the habit of it really fosters the ability to self-regulate, for instance, and to pay attention to your inner processes.

“Of course children might need some help with that, which is what our research is here for. Reading can also help children muster intrinsic motivation for other tasks.

“As for books shaping our personalities, there is a lot of research out there at the moment suggesting that reading fiction makes you a different and better person.

“As a researcher, I am more in favour of suggesting that it’s a process of extending or stretching what is already in you. So I have a more moderate view on this. Also some of us are more easily transformed by other reading materials than fiction.

Anežka Kuzmičová | Photo: Charles University

“But in general, absolutely, a habit of reading adds profound qualities to your life. I have even read somewhere that it has positive effects on longevity, so it even makes you live longer.”

As a researcher, how would you describe the process of reading?  I believe you promote reading as a holistic experience, something that can be experienced physically.

“Yes, absolutely. Although it is probably important to say that this may be so for some readers more than others. Last year I published a chapter in a book called Further Reading, which was published by Oxford University Press.

“There I basically summarised all my reading research to date in three sentences. What I said was: One, reading is a way of being. Two, reading is a way of being yourself. And three: Reading is a way of being yourself in a place.

“By place, I mean the physical setting where you happen to be reading, but I also mean your bodily position and your inner bodily sensations. But I also mean the people surrounding you, of course, because these people are part of your reading experience, whether they are reading with you or not.”

When it comes to reading, most of us would describe it as a solitary activity. But if I understand it correctly, you argue that reading can be, and perhaps should be, a social activity…

“Yes, in the younger stages, absolutely. When you are a grown mature reader, it’s of course up to you what you prefer. But in the younger stages, social scaffolding can do wonders for how you feel about reading.

“If a third grader prefers an appliance manual or a toy catalogue to a textbook, then why not bring these things in?”

“I have run qualitative research with university students who told me they felt awful being the only person with a book in a room. At the same time, several of them found it hard to read in seclusion. Of course this has changed profoundly with the pandemic which has, in a way, imposed on us this solitary way of life.

“But under normal circumstances, these tertiary students, people who do reading as a line of work, are really sensitive to their social surroundings. And if they are this sensitive, how about the little ones, who can just about decode an early reader chapter book? So of course it is scary being alone with a long text and your social surroundings can do wonders about it.”

You have been conducting research into reading among children from third to fifth grade, between the ages of eight to eleven. Why did you chose this specific age group?

“There is an easy answer to this. Any teacher will tell you this is the key stage when children, here in Czechia at least, will have mastered reading as a technical skill and are ready to incorporate it as a habit, or not. After this stage, turning non-readers into readers is not impossible but much more difficult for many reasons.”

So how exactly do you conduct the research and what kind of questions do you ask the children?

“We ask loads of different questions, and I probably already mentioned the most important one, which is: What does it feel like from within your body and mind to be reading or listening to this given story or a given passage in the story?

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“We also ask: How does this compare to your experiences of stories in other modalities? Even though, of course, we don’t use this kind of fancy language. We don’t say modalities, we say: when you are watching films, or playing out stories with your pals or chatting to friends, or even signing songs?

“The way we go about this has had to change more than once because of the pandemic. We started out running focus groups, which are little group interviews, and these were run in school settings and were combined with classroom observations.

“This was in early 2020 and had to stop within weeks because of the school closures. And then between the first two waves of the pandemic we managed to run individual interviews in home settings.

“As for the tools, what’s important to note is that we have been using these bespoke props that we’ve developed ourselves. For instance little canvas dollies, that help children locate their story feelings within their bodies, or picture cards that enable them to communicate their reflections.

“Most recently we have moved our research online, forced by the circumstances, and we are shifting to something called Q-methodology that also uses multimodal materials, but only in 2D, as it were, because this is all digital, of course.”

So what has this research revealed so far? Are Czech children any different from their peers elsewhere in the world when it comes to reading and understanding a text?

“As to comparing Czech children to any others this is not really our remit.  But I would say Czech children are doing relatively OK. It’s also important to remember that with a shallow orthography, such as Czech, learning to read in a technical sense is a piece of cake compared to other languages, such as English.

“As for our findings, we are still very much in the process, at this point. But we are seeing indications of interesting phenomena. One thing that we have already talked about elsewhere is that, strikingly, children find it easier to imagine stories and become absorbed in stories when they are listening to them rather than reading them themselves, even though the respondents who report this are as old as eleven.

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“There is a notion out there that as soon as children are able to read themselves, it’s always better for them to do their reading on their own. But not necessarily in the ages of eight to eleven.

“They have told us: Yes, imagining stories and being able to see the stuff that the story is about, this is a nice thing. But it’s so much easier for me if someone else is reading to me or if I am listening to an audio book. So speaking about reading aloud to older children even in school settings would probably be quite helpful.”

Speaking about schools, how do Czech schools approach literacy instruction at an early age?

“We weren’t able to continue our school-based work because of the pandemic. But from looking at the textbooks and reading anthologies that we are analysing as part of our parallel project you get the impression that literacy instruction in Czech schools is to a large degree more like a truly academic subject from relatively early on and has little to do with affect, and volition or even passion in the little learners.

“But we really haven’t run quantitative teacher surveys for instance, of any sorts. So we don’t know for sure what kind of practices really prevail in the classroom. We can just guess.”

Can the will to read be developed and stimulated? And if so, how exactly can teachers and parents cultivate the joy of reading in children?

“I would say that good reading starts with feeling good about reading. This is contingent on making a child comfortable and making them feel at one with the task. Part of this is purely about making them physically comfortable, but another part might be just turning their attention to their bodily sensations, which is what we are trying to do here in our research.

“And finally, something I haven’t mentioned yet, a key part is also asking the little ones about what they want to read. So if a third grader prefers an appliance manual or a toy catalogue to a textbook, then why not bring these things in?

“I have seen kids, also during my work in Britain earlier, clearly preferring non-fiction and even non-book materials to what literacy is normally presented as.

When you allow them to bring in these unconventional literacy materials that they prefer and find exciting, it’s a way for them of experiencing that they are at one with the task of reading and that reading is fun. And eventually, this can spill over into other reading materials.”

How do you intend to use the findings from your research?

“We would love to, of course. Opportunities have been really limited over the past year, because of the pandemic. But we are doing our best to use our research already every which way and to reach out to literacy practitioners especially. For instance we have a Facebook site where we publish little snippets and videos from our research.

“But more systematically I would very much like to see renewed contact with the practitioner community as soon as Covid is under control, for instance through joint applied research that would test out the various embodied pedagogies based on what we are finding out these very days during the three integrated phases of our child-centred research. So if there are any schools out there interested in a joint venture, I would be very pleased to hear from them!”