Get smart: Fire your teachers, read for pleasure

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 06/06/2009 12:27 PM  |  Opinion

Can literacy competence be developed without instruction? More specifically, can our ability to read and write mature styles, complex grammatical structures and good diction improve automatically without the assistance of instruction?

Traditional wisdom suggests it can’t. No pain, no gain has become a common credo in language learning. Direct instruction, after all, is believed to have a powerful effect on one’s language development.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to suspect that literacy development can be facilitated without instruction. Language acquisition theory to date is replete with empirical evidence (well-documented in Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading) that reading for pleasure alone is potent enough to facilitate the growth of one’s language development.

Instruction, on the contrary, isn’t always necessary. In extreme cases are findings from research which reveal that people both young and adult are able to read and spell in the absence of formal instruction at home. In fact, these people are already good readers and spellers before attending school.

With growing evidence to support the notion that language competence can be attained without instruction, people don’t always need to resort to learning grammar, vocabulary and spelling, to read and write better.

Research has demonstrated convincingly that the effect of instruction is weak, fragile and disappears over time. Furthermore, given our brain’s limited memory, grammar and vocabulary are too intricate to learn and memorize.

Worse, too often instruction leads students to the path of pain, causing increased anxiety, insecurity and boredom. Homework, for instance, an infamous supplementary device to instruction, has been accused of depleting students’ interest in pursuing something they value most – doing “pleasure reading,” or what Krashen calls “free voluntary reading”.

It is well established that schoolchildren are burdened cognitively with obligatory assignments to read textbooks – books which often disinterest them, or which are not comprehensible or meaningful to them.

Moreover, students are often forced to memorize vocabulary lists or made to understand complex language rules. Instruction has been perceived as a source of frustration. This being the case, we need to advise students to “fire their teachers”.

We should instead exhort our students and children to read for pleasure, to read any kinds of books on topics that interest them, without any obligation to finish them if they choose not to do so.

When they find themselves absorbed and “lost” in books, forgetting their dinner time, play time and bed time, we can be sure they love what they are reading. In such cases, there is no reason to “bribe” and offer them rewards to arouse their reading habits.

Giving children freedom to self-select what they want to read not only offers tremendous pleasure to them, but more importantly stimulates their cognitive development, which eventually accelerates their acquisition of vocabulary, grammar, and written styles, effectively.

A recent reading campaign posted on advertorial boards on many streets around Jakarta, with the slogan Yuk, membaca !(let’s read) is a good step toward boosting pleasure reading awareness, particularly among the younger generations.

Far more important is the establishment of perpustakaan keliling (mobile libraries) and Taman Bacaan Rakyat (community libraries), which have won praise for providing informal education and free access to books to the community.

Needless to say, easy access to libraries is strongly correlated to reading achievement. Those who frequently visit libraries, just to read for pleasure, are more likely to develop literacy skills than those who don’t.

Probably the most important way to stimulate pleasure reading for literacy improvement is through the establishment of print-rich environments in remote areas, where the adult illiteracy rates are still high.

The writer is the chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching. He also teaches English composition at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.

The real meaning, value of literacy for RI

Eddy Henry ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 06/06/2009 12:28 PM  |  Opinion

A recent report has shown that Indonesians spend far much more time watching television than reading. The International Reading Literacy Study (IRLS), which measures the developmental progress of children’s reading, ranked Indonesia 36th among 40 countries.

The only countries below us were Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco and South Africa. But rather than dismissing this as Indonesians not being interested in reading, issues of the affordability and accessibility of reading material must first be explored.

Books are not inexpensive in Indonesia. In fact, in contrast to neighbouring countries like Singapore and Malaysia, books in Indonesia are considered to be expensive and non-attainable by most of the population. This includes locally published books. For example, the cheapest children’s book for sale in book store chains such as Gramedia and Toko Gunung Agung are around Rp 12,000 (US$ 1.3) and these are mostly comics.

In contrast, a similar amount could have purchased books with a higher educational content, or more books, in our neighbouring countries. When comparing higher quality imported books, the disparity grows. A children’s book can easily cost up to Rp 100,000 in book stores such as Kinokuniya and Times. In general, imported books cost between 20 and 30 percent more here than in neighbouring countries.

This is probably the bookstores’ way of compensating for a lack of scale in sales. In India, where illiteracy stands at 32 percent, a similar country with a similar socio-economic profile to Indonesia, books printed locally are far cheaper and far more accessible than they are here. As a result, the illiteracy rate in India is expected to drop drastically in future years.

The lacklustre reading habits in Indonesia is equally attributable to the apparent lack of places to read. The total number of libraries across the archipelago is just under 6,200, of which less than 3,000 are open to the public. This translates to one library for every 35,000 persons. In Singapore, there are more than 550 libraries, translating to a ratio of one library per 7,000 persons. Furthermore, there are up to half a million books in each of its national libraries.

Heeding to this call, efforts have been seen from non-profit and international organizations to increase accessibility to books in Indonesia. First lady Ani Yudhoyono, for example, has initiated a program to provide 100 mobile libraries to serve remote villages across Indonesia – each with internet access and containing some 5,000 books.

Issues of affordability and accessibility of reading materials must be taken seriously by various stakeholders in Indonesia. Book publishers for example, should care less about profit margins and more about spreading the love for reading across the country. The government could in turn provide larger subsidies for educational books sold. National campaigns to encourage reading must also be conducted seriously, with a reach that spreads into the pockets of rural living.

Parents, above all, play the most immediate role in planting a love for reading in children. They can for example, make it a priority to spend at least 15 minutes a day reading to their children. This will not only promote early literacy, but also strengthen the bond between parents and children, as well as encouraging healthy brain development.

In its truest sense, literacy creates an educated man who is able to fulfil his own dreams, and to expand his society’s capacity as a whole. As a learned country, literacy is the basic element in building human capital, fostering cultural identity and tolerance, and promoting civic participation.

Indonesia, alongside its efforts to achieve a 95 percent literacy rate by 2009, should also focus on imparting literacy as a prolonged quest for knowledge, and a lifelong passion for learning and growth. To do so, a combined effort from the government, schools and parents, as well as the private and public sectors, is needed.

The writer is the chairperson of the United World Colleges (UWC) National Committee for Indonesia.