Character building through free reading the right step to take

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sun, August 02 2015, 6:01 AM

Starting this 2015 academic year, schools nationwide will oblige their students to spend at least 15 minutes prior to the start of class participating in a free-reading activity, as stipulated in Ministerial Regulation No. 23/2015 issued by the Culture and Elementary and Secondary Education Ministry. Though long overdue, the move needs to be applauded.

Culture and Elementary and Secondary Minister Anis Baswedan has initiated the in-class free reading program on the grounds that such an activity can help instill positive traits in school children. In other words, free reading is believed to be beneficial for students’ character development.

While 15 minutes is considered insufficient for exhorting students to choose books they are fond of and then to read them, Anis’ stupendous move to instill positive traits in students through free reading has scientific justification.

Free reading, or what American educator Stephen Krashen calls “Free voluntary reading or recreational reading,” indeed offer huge benefits not only to children’s cognitive development but also to their character development.

Research findings have hitherto accumulated (well documented in Krashen’s book, Free Voluntary Reading), espousing the merits of free reading over instructed reading such as obligatory school textbook reading. Children develop language skills faster when they are encouraged to initially do “light reading” such as folk tales, magazines, comics, simplified novels and story books.

Good reading material should not always be associated with “quality” reading like school textbooks or academic-oriented books.

Free reading in the form of illustrated light reading material has been proven to stimulate children’s imagination and creativity, making them inquisitive and critical, thereby encouraging them to read advanced reading material. Unlike in-school instructed reading, which most students are averse to, free reading allows children to explore and shape their own world. This may include reading accountability like book reports.

More important, free reading contributes to the shaping of positive characters. For example, folktales or biographies can influence children to behave in a positive way.

Likewise, free reading provides the opportunity for students to align what is printed in books with what they witness and experience in their vicinity, thus making them not only cognitively and linguistically mature but also socially sensitive. In this respect, reading becomes an important ecological resource that can connect their cognition with the outside world.

Anis’ newly issued policy, however, is not without its problems. For schools in big cities, imposing the 15-minute free reading activity is without question viable, but for schools in remote, poverty stricken regions that will not always be feasible.

The major stumbling block facing the latter schools is that books are scarce, as the numbers of libraries in those schools are very limited. This certainly results in a lack of access to books, which in turn discourages students from becoming voracious readers.

Meanwhile, for children growing up in poverty, the 15-minute free-reading program is a sheer delusion.

To encourage students to read more, they need to be given access to books. It is evident that easy access to books help stimulate students to develop a reading habit. On the contrary, a lack of book displays in schools seriously hampers students’ effort to read, either voluntarily or for their own pleasure.

It is therefore clear that the free-reading policy needs to be simultaneously supplemented with a program that requires all schools (state-owned and private) to have a school library, so as to ensure that the policy can be equally implemented in all schools nationwide.
The writer is an associate professor of English at the School of Education and Language, Atma Jaya Catholic
University, Jakarta.