Librarian’s plan to get more children reading

Sharon Geffen.

City Bowl school librarian Sharon Geffen is on a mission to build a “congregation of readers” in a country where literacy levels are low.

Ms Geffen, a Sea Point resident whose career spans more than 30 years, said that in 1994, while she was working at Kloof Street library, there were no reading programmes for two-year-olds because people didn’t believe that they could concentrate throughout the duration of a story programme.

“I challenged that and devised a morning programme employing various methods to teach the children about focus, concentration and listening skills. While the children were having an enjoyable time, they were picking up on literacy, numeracy, sequencing, moving their bodies which were things that children at that age struggle with nowadays.”

Ms Geffen, who also has 19 years experience as a teacher, said recent technological advances are stunting the cognitive development of small children. “This is my belief and this is what I have observed over many years of working with young children and their parents. I deal with new parents and I give them this advice. Do not give your children any electronic devices before they reach four years old. I encourage them to put into place various skills which I teach during my programme so that by the time their children reach Grade 1, they can actually sit in their chairs and listen to an instruction from a teacher.

“I have found that even at home children don’t hear their parents because from a young age children are placed in front of TVs and exposed to cellphones, iPads and computer games.

“There is something in the young brain that shuts off and cannot receive information when they are over-stimulated in that way. Children’s brains are like sponges but if they are constantly overstimulated they are no longer able to use their critical thinking skills.”

Ms Geffen said when her generation was young, they watched cartoons such as Tom and Jerry which was less jarring visually when compared to present day cartoons. “The images of those cartoons were slow moving but if you put on movies nowadays the images are over stimulating children. It’s like sparks going off in their brains. This leads to reading and concentration problems later down the line. I’m not categorically saying it’s solely responsible for everything, however, evidence I have gathered over the past 30 years shows that there has been a major shift.

“That is the reason I do this work with the babies because I feel that if I can give some children these invaluable skills, it will help them tremendously in their future development.”

Ms Geffen said the first step with children during her programme was holding and talking to them in a calm, soothing voice. “You want to engage the whole child. That is why I am against placing children in an array of extra-mural activities when they are very young. My programme is about laying down that foundation and I personally believe it is almost too late to start this process when the child is in Grade 1.”

Ms Geffen said she can’t over-emphasise the importance of teaching children nursery rhymes. “Nursery rhymes are your early poetry. If children know their nursery rhymes their memory is well on its way, which will later benefit them in their academic careers. Children don’t want to read because they view it as a chore. If they are exposed to books and a careful adult from infancy, reading becomes as natural as breathing. A book can take you to any land and I make it my business to inspire children to read.”

Ms Geffen said the tone of one’s voice, eye contact, actions and gestures, balance and setting the scene are the cornerstones of her programme. “I also encourage active listening skills by playing excerpts of music, text or sounds. For example, I will ask them to identify bird and animal sounds,” she explains.

She encourages parents and their babies to attend her Babies Read Books programme every second Tuesday starting from Tuesday February 7 until Tuesday February 21, at Mediclinic Cape Town, from 9.15am to 9.45am. Entry is R20. Call her on 082 222 4082 or email to learn more.