Even if you've been on this blog for only five minutes, you'd know I'm a huge reader. I have been devouring books for most of my life and have read more than 1.5k books (according to my Goodreads). But there's one fact that might surprise you.

I've been an avid reader since 6th grade, but only outside academia.

Just because I like reading doesn't mean I'll like everything. But you have to admit: there's something wrong if a student reads 200 books a year and doesn't even skim through what is needed for English classes. I won't say that all of it was bad. It's just that none of it was good.

It has been years since I graduated and I have learnt a lot of things—enough to appreciate some of what we were taught that I didn't give importance to and to have specific criticisms. I have many opinions about required reading in general and required reading in the Indian education system.

This post is inspired by an old Let's Talk Bookish prompt. I didn't think I'd ever write on this topic but the prompt got me writing down many thoughts and I had to make it a post.

The definition of required reading is "reading that must be done." This is a good explanation but also a vague one. Who gets to decide which reading must be done? Who must do it? When must it be done? Each of these questions split off into several answers that lead to more questions.

The current mandate is that required reading is done in schools. They will be a set of books (generally English classics) that the students will have to read, analyse, discuss, and write essays on. But, not all of that happens as it should and sometimes, required reading isn’t considered properly at all.

Required reading is important for the same reasons that reading is important—it broadens mindsets, teaches new things, asks questions, and gives some answers. Kids won't easily pick up books unless they're given the option to explore what books have to offer.*

Mandated reading in schools has so much potential to make a difference in students and the future of the world. It can teach them to look from different perspectives, discuss, learn to agree to disagree in cases, and realize what their boundaries are where they won’t accept the other answer. It is a powerful way to make a difference. The important part is that the material chosen for the syllabus makes a difference whether it is intended to or not. The school years are the most impressionable years and what is taught can determine the future.**

What is taught to young kids has long-term effects. Imagine if equality across races, gender, and more were taught in schools. It would have made such a difference. It's not easy to teach concepts like racism and equality though (especially since we can't even mention it publicly without backlash and ten thousand reasons on how that's wrong). That's where required reading should come in. It is much easier to learn other perspectives and vague concepts through stories.

Above all other reasons, required reading is important because it occupies a big portion of the school syllabus. Students spend a lot of time reading material—and what they read makes a difference beyond learning the structure of the language.

* But does required reading actually let students explore?

** Here's a real-world example: A subject in, I think, 5th grade had a section on littering and it was given importance. Because of it, my generation is extra cautious about littering and we go outside our way to clean up common areas and hold others (including family) accountable. And I can see the difference in my area as people who learnt it in school made their way into society.

illustration art of a person sitting cross-legged on bed, with a book on their lap, holding a mug.

required reading in my school

I am unsure about how it is in other places but I had language classes throughout my schooling. Our syllabus had English as the primary language, Hindi as the secondary language, and Sanskrit as the tertiary language.* The notable fact is that all of my language classes were only language grammar and comprehension classes.

We didn't technically have "required reading" (it's why I didn't think I'd write about this topic before) but we did read stories through which we'd learn grammar and sentence structure. Our textbooks were a compilation of poems, short stories and parts of plays. Although we'd analyze them sometimes, the main goal was to become fluent in the language and not to dive into the literature.

We couldn't have a lot of discussions and exploration because our learning was based on memorization. All the questions in our exams were straightforward and expected ONE answer. There is no space for interpretations or personal opinions. The English classes I read about and see on TV shows are very different compared to what I grew up with.

Other than our main textbook, we sometimes had a "supplementary book" for the year which would be an entire (maybe abridged) novel. I guess you could consider this as our only real "required reading" part but it is also there mostly for reading comprehension. The supplementary book wouldn't take up much of our grade and the questions on it also expected a straight answer. We aren't taught or encouraged to annotate, we didn't ask why or have in-depth discussions. We couldn't analyze what we read much—we were busy trying to remember the plot and the exact answers to possible questions.

We had books like Three Men in a Boat, The Invisible Man, Ramayana, and Mahabharata (I actually agree with the choice of the last 2 but it was in Hindi, which was excruciating to read). We had the option to read Helen Keller's The Story of My Life for one year but our school chose a different book.

Since the syllabus is set at a national level (I studied in the central board system), teachers don't have much flexibility to choose the books. They don't have the option to deviate from the syllabus, especially since even the exam is set at a national level—we never know who's forming the questions and what we'll be asked. It's even harder when our answers are evaluated by teachers in entirely different schools.**

* I have many, many thoughts about what languages were taught and the order in which they were placed—especially considering that I studied in Karnataka. I was learning three languages in school but needed to simultaneously learn three entirely different languages outside of it that were locally used. So I know 6 languages with varying degrees of fluency and absolute confidence in none.

** Since we were in the central system, our most important papers were shuffled around for fair marking.

illustration art of a book stack with a pair of spectacles on it and a desk calendar next to it with January dates

Later when I started using more of the internet and got to know about educational systems across the world, I felt betrayed that we were robbed of good literature classes. As I grow older, the betrayal feels bigger. I started annotating years after graduating school and there are places where it is encouraged! We were robbed of having a classroom which was a safe space to discuss fictional characters and events that reflect our world. We didn't think critically about the writing, the story, or the characters.

Mainly, I feel betrayed that we were not taught anything of substance besides the mechanics of the languages.

I learnt much more from the novels I read during my free time. The syllabus was useless to the point that when my English teacher caught me reading under the desk instead of listening to her during class, she told me to feel free to read anytime in her classes. I had her the next year as well and in the first introductory class, she literally told the class that everyone's free to read like me.

The funny part is that I, an avid reader, never read the supplementary novels (except once). I wouldn't even skim them. I read the summaries online, went through old question papers, and walked into the exam room. The one time I read it was when I was bored and was done studying other things. I read The Invisible Man in one sitting and hated it.*

Ironically, the only language class that taught us more than grammar was Sanskrit. It's the one language that we don't use in casual communication and we need to memorize it more. But it was the easiest class because the exams were easy with multiple choice questions and one-word answers, and some questions could be answered in English too. But the short stories in Sanskrit were rich in morals. They were interesting. I used to come home and talk about them. I used to be interested enough to ask for my uncle's help (since he's fluent in the language) to understand the material properly.

Since we didn't have to memorize all the stories and answer "what did they do, why did they do it" exactly the way the system wants us to, we could spend time to truly understand and learn from the chapters. Only if we were interested and had time apart from the "more important" subjects, though.

The only required reading that I (now) agree with was Ramayana and Mahabharata. They were abridged versions but they were stories that each of us should know. However, they were written in hard-to-read Hindi and we were students in South India. They also weren't given much importance for exams so I don't think I even read the books entirely.

* That is the one book that we actually discussed a bit and... I had a lot of thoughts. Enough to write a book review on it on my blog in the early days, lol.

illustration of an open book with tons of annotations and tabs on the pages.

Maybe things are better in schools now and maybe they were better in other schools at the time, but the above was my experience. But there is one thing that all of us had in common—required reading did not stand a chance against STEM subjects. We are a country heavily invested in the grades of students. It doesn't matter if someone excels in sports or art if they don't do well in the "important subjects."

My English teacher in the last two years of high school actually had things to teach and tried with the strict syllabus. I would have enjoyed her class but I didn't have the time or energy to. We couldn't give our best in that class. We'd often turn in our homework late for English because of the work in other subjects. Some of my friends used to do homework for Math in English classes! How are students supposed to form reading habits if they're not given the time to read (not study) regularly?

As a society, we place way too much importance on STEM subjects and even if literature is explicitly added to the syllabus, students will be pressured to spend all their time on the "serious" subjects. We're not allowed to spend time on and enjoy literature, especially not from 9th grade which is when we can have good readings and discussions.

I had 12 years of English, 8 years of Hindi, and 5 years of Sanskrit and yet, none of them made a big impression on me. I wouldn't attribute my interest in literature to any of my classes. Nothing from the syllabus made us want to read more—and that is a travesty.

what needs to change

We have language classes every year till we graduate high school. No matter the language, I think there's wasted opportunity because we don't need all those years only for grammatical understanding.*

I would love to see required reading look like the following:

  • Books or stories set in the CURRENT times. Sure, classics and old poems can be good but we're in India. We cannot have the same syllabus as the UK because English is NOT our only language and we honestly don't have the time to explore all of the different types of literature—especially when all of them are not set in India. The easiest way to disinterest students is to make them read stories that they can't relate to while they're still grasping the language.** Students can't spend extra time browsing social media for books. We needed books set in the current society or related to the current life. I wish we properly read our epics and other stories from our history (without it being a history lesson). I wish we read stories that highlight the traditions and cultures of where we live. There are so many good stories in our families and I'm lowkey ashamed that we only read stories by people from first-world countries. All those classics weren’t classics for us—they were boring and annoying. We couldn’t relate to the characters at all and we forgot the stories soon after our exams.
  • Books that facilitate good discussions. The class shouldn't be only about the language itself. The point is to discuss things through the language. Academia should include interesting books or stories without pigeonholing the syllabus only to reading comprehension and grammar. Rote-learning what happens in the story doesn't help us become fluent but explaining our opinions on the topic can.
  • Accepting multiple answers. I wish that academia in India wasn't hell-bent on conforming all students into one mould. We're very different and forcing us to give the same answer does not raise creative people. Requiring one answer makes sense in science subjects but not in art subjects.
  • A syllabus that is regularly evaluated and updated. A lot of our reading material is the same as two decades ago. We need to evaluate what is in the textbooks and whether they make sense in the current day. And there needs to be a proper discussion on whether English classics should be taught at all in India, especially if the focus is not on English literature. Not because they're boring or hard to read—because they make no sense to us. Imagine how weird it is for an Indian teenager in Bangalore to read a story by a White man in some European country speaking old English (while simultaneously learning how the British absolutely ruined our country in history classes). We're barely fluent in regular English, why would we read "where art thou?" with seriousness?*** Chapters like this defeated the point of at least teaching proper grammar and fluency in the language. A lot of students scoffed over the syllabus due to such chapters. We could care less about those stories or poems.

Honestly, most students aren't confidently fluent in the languages as well, despite all those years. There's something very wrong about the syllabus as a whole. There are chapters that are clearly meant for analysis and discussion but we rote learnt the answers. We don't become fluent in the languages because we're too focused on memorising things. Languages need to be given more importance in academia in the first place. With the way it is right now, sometimes even 12 years of classes isn't enough for someone to be confidently fluent in the language. Because we simply don't study or try enough.

Which languages are taught is also important, especially in a country like India. It doesn't help to learn languages completely out of sync with what is being spoken locally. Students could easily dismiss the language classes, study to just pass (by rote learning), and never be fluent because they are speaking different languages outside the classroom. (The discussion on language is much bigger. If I start on that, this post will never end.)

* If done well.

** My classmates and I did not care about what we read in school. Most of us were pretty good with the language but even then, we couldn't understand why we had to study what we studied.

*** Since we're on the subject—is Shakespeare taught across the world because his works are good and enjoyable by all or because they were forced on everyone through colonization?

illustration art of a book with highlights and written annotations

Over everything else, I want required reading to be an actual concept in Indian academia. No matter the languages taught, I want classes to be about more than reading comprehension and basic understanding. Reading novels should be encouraged more and students should be given the time to read things other than STEM materials.

Much of what I know now was learnt outside of school, even if it was mentioned in the syllabus. I learnt through friends, the internet, and mainly novels. I read better classics years after graduation. It’s a travesty that academia couldn’t interest even a reader like me. I enjoyed only the history material a little but even that felt like propaganda many times.

We need required reading to be good because reading is a radical act and we should be raising radicals who make change and come up with new ideas, not robots who think the same and do the same things.* Right now, academic reading is not making a difference.

* It's funny how AI systems write novels and make art and compose music nowadays. Whatever happened to "don't spend time on the arts, it's not profitable" and how does it magically not apply to AI?

what do you think?

What did required reading look like for you? What would you change? Do you have any viewpoints to add that I totally missed? Tell me in the comments!

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Sumedha spends her days reading books, bingeing Kdramas, drawing illustrations, and blogging while listening to Lo-Fi music. Read more ➔

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  • abookowlscorner says:

    This was such a thought-provoking and eye-opening post that really made me appreciate my own experience with required reading a whole lot more! After I moved back to Germany from the United States when I was in sixth grade, I was honestly a little shocked by how little required reading there was compared to what I'd grown used to. There were no set books during school holidays, and, up until tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade, when we suddenly read loads again, we usually only read one novel in each language class - in my case, that was German, English, French, and Latin.

    But we did really dive deeply into all of those books, and - although I didn't always appreciate or like what we had to read - I feel like we had a pretty good mix of literature that led to really interesting discussions and had me take a lot more away from the experience than if I had just read the books on my own.

    Still, my experiences were also pretty dependent on my teachers. For example, I think I probably wouldn't love Shakespeare as much as I do now if we hadn't had this really cool, interactive and thought-provoking unit on A Midsummer Night's Dream when I was in twelfth grade. We made portfolios on that, acted out some of the scenes, discussed parallels to Latin class (Pyramus and Thisbe was required reading there in 9th grade, I think ?) and contemporary politics, compared adaptations, looked at hidden historical humor in the language - I had a blast! But I also vividly remember our tenth grade French teacher suddenly remembering that we still hadn't read a novel at the end of the school year, hurriedly ordering the Intouchables film script, and leaving it untouched while we instead watched the movie (which most of us had already seen anyway) ?

    Also, after 9th grade, the novel selections were definitely very classics-heavy, especially in German and English. A few other things in between probably wouldn't have hurt! Especially since some teachers - although they claimed to be open to all interpretations as long as you provided enough textual evidence - had clearly taught the same novels over and over again so often that they clearly already had a very fixed idea of how they were supposed to be discussed ? This infuriated me at the time, but now that I'm teaching again, I also kind of get it? Reading a non-standard book means there are no lesson plans or materials for it, so the preparation is insane... On the other hand, putting in all that work is so worth it! Like, this year, I gave my tenth-graders the curriculum criteria for our required English reading, had them research and present novels that fit those criteria at the beginning of the second half of the school year, and then let them vote on which book they wanted - now we're reading A Good Girl's Guide to Murder and, even though I'd already read it, I'm discovering so many interesting things about it by teaching it in class! So I definitely think there's a lot to be gained by choosing works that will captivate students' attention - although forcing a classic upon them and making them read outside of their comfort zone has its merits, too ? I think what you need is probably a good balance and - no matter what you read - room for discussion! But, when I compare my education to what my parents had, I feel like that has gotten a lot better, so maybe there's hope for India, too?

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    • sumedha @ the wordy habitat says:

      I loved hearing about your experience while studying and especially as a teacher! It's so cool that you had good teachers who made you love your reading and that you're putting in so much effort to make it fun for your students. I agree, there is hope for India. The point is to create awareness, start conversations, and get people on it instead of silently hoping it becomes better, you know? I have recently spoken to teachers who try to do more but the movement needs to become larger and teachers need more flexibility. There is hope, just gotta hope real shifts start happening soon ?

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  • Reading this post made me appreciate my home education even more than I have before. I always loved that I was homeschooled and that my mom was the person who chose my "required reading." So much of what I read for academia was chosen because she knew I would benefit from it or enjoy it. And while as an adult, so many of those books aren't my cup of tea (and of course, there were a few thrown in there for learning purposes only that I didn't like at all), for the most part, I'm thankful for the books that I read in school. I don't find myself feeling resentful of it at all. I even think back to my junior year of high school and how I had enough history credits to graduate at that point, so my mom literally was like "choose anything" and I got to read two books: one on Greek mythology and one on Roman mythology. They were chonky, but that was literally my history course for the year and it was amazing. Basically Mythology as an elective! Truly, I realize how blessed I was to have the opportunity to be taught at home. I wish more people had that experience because it helped formulate who I am as a person and I'm very thankful for it!

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    • sumedha @ the wordy habitat says:

      your experience sounds like a dream! and the fact that your mum made your reading more interesting and gave you choices is so cool. in my country, most parents would probably skip over arts subject as much as possible and cram all the STEM ? everyone is competitive oof. glad that you had a good experience!

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  • thecritiquesofafangirl says:

    This is such an amazing and thought provoking post! My experience with required reading and language studies was pretty much the same! We also has some supplementary books but we were never required to read them which kinda sucks and though I was always more inclined towards STEM and didn't get absorbed into reading until after I was in degree college, I have always wondered if I would have pursued arts if I had been able to explore the same!

    English exams in state board became more like a requirement than an actual example with focus shifting away from pretty much everything and even the way the other languages I was learning were handled was pretty bad, I am superb bad at reading and speaking my regional language ? and even when it comes to English, I only became good at it after I took a personal interest in it and made majorly English speaking friends in college!

    And I completely agree! It is such a missed opportunity as books can really open doors to important conversations and new ways of thinking and as great as classics are (forever a Mr Darcy Stan) they are out of time, there are so many great books talking about current issues that need to be focused on!

    Thank you for sharing this! This legit has left me deep in thought

    Reply ➔
    • sumedha @ the wordy habitat says:

      Glad you liked this post, Mek! Oh yeah, I wonder if I was allowed to actually be critical about books, I would have pursued arts sooner. I never considered that it could be a serious path because I was never told about it—I only heard of Engineering and Medical. By the time I found out, it was too late to try and pursue it. Sometimes I play the game of "what if" but we can only look forward only.

      That's the thing! We'll never be good at languages unless we have interest in them aside from the compulsory stuff. We need to be encouraged to like the languages and read and do more. Our education system... smh.

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      • thecritiquesofafangirl says:

        That’s so true! In retrospect I can now understand how difficult it was to wanna align dreams to anything but what was considered lucrative! But I am glad that there has been a mindset shift, it’s small and slow but it’s happening which is great!

        Couldn’t agree more on that last sentence, we need better education system not just here but in most parts of the world tbh!

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  • queenie @ the erudite labyrinth says:

    Hard agree with all the points you've presented! This was such an interesting post and I can't agree more with the education system, especially how they treat languages. Hindi is somehow always given priority and our own languages are often ignored—I still think of how my skills in Hindi are way better than the languages I speak (Telugu & Tamil) and it's so sad to see that we were so robbed of it. Also how literature and arts have little to no value here because Science/Law is the only option ?

    Reply ➔
    • sumedha @ the wordy habitat says:

      I speak Hindi better than Tamil and Telugu as well and it's a travesty ? these are beautiful languages and while Hindi is good too, I dislike it on the principle that it's treated as the national language even though it's not.

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  • Mesal A. says:

    this was a very well-written post and it's clear you put much thought into it. i loved reading through it all! having been an english teacher at some point, and having worked with a coordinator who saw a similar vision to you re: making the syllabus current, trying to teach students certain morals through their required reading, and provoking their own thoughts by accepting multiple answers (i taught in an IGCSE setting so i didn't have to deal with the rote learning system of my matric days), i ended up agreeing with a lot of what you've said. excellent post!

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  • Rakesh says:

    Thought provoking.

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  • Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    I studied in state board and regional language (Gujarati) was priority so we didn't have any required English or any other language novels to read in schools. i think because of that I didn't develop my interest in novels until i was out of college and a friend thrust book in my hand to read. As for little bit English stories we had in text books, we focused on remembering the question answers than discussing on the themes and layers and lessons in the book and it wasn't just for English but was same with Gujarati and Hindi. So I'll say encouraging reading novels required or not will sure make difference. Amazing post!

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    • sumedha @ the wordy habitat says:

      that’s the case for many, interesting books aren’t encouraged enough and so we discover books only later on. at least better late than never! i’m glad you liked the post ?

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  • Tomi says:

    I actually enjoyed reading some of the required books in high school, although they weren’t necessarily compulsory for me to read.

    But since I was and still am a voracious reader, I went ahead and borrowed copies of some of these books to read during my free time.

    Some of the books I enjoyed reading were Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Lion and the Jewel by Wole Soyinka, Unexpected Joy at Dawn by Alex Agyei Agyiri, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie.

    Most of these books were written by African literary giants, and they covered many topics such as xenophobia in Africa, the Biafra war in Nigeria, African slavery, and racism.
    I found them to be enlightening novels, although, I admit, some were a bit hard to read, like Wuthering Heights. I still got to learn about historical events that happened in Nigeria and Africa as a whole, which I wouldn't have known about since history classes weren't offered in my school.
    So, I agree with you that the required books should be diverse and focus on important issues and history. These books will ensure students are able to form their own opinions on sensitive topics such as racism, LGBTQ, and gender equality, rather than being forced to succumb to limiting opinions and/or beliefs that may have worked in the past but not necessarily in today's society. Academia reading should a way for students to safely ask hard questions and learn much more.

    Wow, what a lengthy comment! I guess I had a lot to say ?

    Reply ➔
    • sumedha @ the wordy habitat says:

      i’m glad to hear that you were able to borrow and read all those books! and just having those books available can go a long way for students to read them.

      “academic reading should be a way for students to safely ask hard questions and learn much more.”— totally agreed!

      i’m happy to receive long comments ?

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