Exploding the myth of non-literate culture

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Sat, 05/29/2010 10:46 AM | Opinion A | A | A | A serious accusation often directed at our culture is that we are predominantly an oral culture rather than a literate culture. Such an accusation seems to be proven true when we witness the fact that most of our people spend their spare time chatting with each other rather than reading books. Nevertheless, this sweeping generalization is proved unfounded when we closely observe our children’s behavior. Contrary to popular belief that our children’s reading habits lack, children are, amazingly, readers by nature. The famous slogan “everyone is a reader” seems to support this assertion. It seems that our species have been destined to be readers to satisfy our inquisitiveness. It is indeed a remarkable fact to find that children are inherently endowed with such an inquisitive mind and are voracious readers. Finding evidence to show that children are truly readers is not difficult. I am often amazed to see many kids and teenage boys and girls enthusiastically selecting and picking up books from store bookshelves. Many of them sat on the floor, reading an assortment of books from a variety of genres such as fairly tales, comics, teenage novels and a series of popular sciences. Moreover, just visit community libraries, mobile libraries and community reading playgrounds! One will be flabbergasted to see that most of the visitors are young children and teenagers. Surprisingly, children are wittingly selective in choosing what they wish to read. They tend to prefer “light” reading material — books with content demanding less cognitive load and are entertaining. Such a reading activity is known, in most reading literature, as free voluntary reading or pleasure reading — reading because one wishes too. Evidence showing children are avid readers suggests that the prevailing perception that our children lack a reading habit, and that we belong to a more oral than literal culture, is in fact a sheer myth. Unfortunately, our pedagogy has wrongly contributed to the shaping of public opinion, and as such helps perpetuate the myth among our community members. It has infamously set unrealistic standards for our children to achieve academic success in their literacy development. It is common knowledge that in early schooling children have been exposed to “heavy” or “serious” reading material with the assumption that reading such material offers cognitive advantages for children. Student’s resistance to this reading material has been interpreted as a lack of reading habit, which sadly most parents in particular and people in general believe. After all, reading material of a serious genre such as school textbooks have been deemed mandatory for students’ academic development, and are therefore exhorted even in early years of learning. The serious problem in both our general pedagogical and literacy practices is that, in my view, they fail to play their facilitative role in assisting children to nurture their potential as readers. They fail to recognize that every child is in fact a reader. The best effort the government can offer to deal with this quandary is to promote a reading campaign nationwide. Yet, such an effort is not necessary because even without being encouraged children are already book lovers. They know by themselves what and how to read without necessarily being cajoled and “bribed” by adults. Unlike what has been commonly assumed in our pedagogical practices, academic research presents a completely different picture. There is no better way of helping children boost their literacy skill than lowering our expectation of them. That is, we need not restrict children in their attempts to explore their own world for the sake of fulfilling our unrealistic goals. Academic success doesn’t start from a massive exposure to reading serious literature, but instead begins from light reading materials such as comics, short story, folk tales, and teen romances. In other words, light reading serves as the best conduit to serious or heavy reading. Another serious factor responsible for perpetuating the myth of our non-literate culture comes from the lack of access to libraries. Most children in remote areas in the country are children of poverty. Despite their inherent drive to satisfy their curiosity through reading, many children from these poverty-stricken regions can’t access books. It sounds plausible to assume that more access to libraries means more reading, and in turn results in more literacy. In the end, it is fair to claim that due to lack of access to books these children of poverty might be more illiterate than those from a well-off family. Nevertheless, it is unfair to make a sweeping generalization that the former exhibits a lack of reading habit, hence non-literate culture. The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta. He is chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.

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