Working towards a national reading culture

Children participate in National Reading Day activities in Phnom Penh on Sunday. Photo supplied
Children participate in National Reading Day activities in Phnom Penh on Sunday. Photo supplied

Working towards a national reading culture

by Dr Jill Reimer

Sunday marked the third year that Cambodia celebrated National Reading Day.

Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-degree in 2015 to mark March 11 as National Reading Day in the Kingdom – a day of great importance as it demonstrates recognition by the highest level of government that reading is a critical skill and it is a habit that many Cambodians ought to improve.

It is up to individuals to cultivate the habit of reading, and it is up to parents and caregivers to support, model, and encourage reading. The government can also take a big role in helping to foster a national reading culture.

A country’s most valuable resource is its people. Building a culture of reading is crucial to Cambodia’s future. The lack of reading habits will, if left unaddressed, affect the nation’s competitiveness globally and hamper the nation’s ability to compete with other countries in the Asean skilled labour market.

A survey conducted by World Vision in 2016 showed mixed results: Many parents reported encouraging their children to read, and also read stories to them at a young age. At the same time, students reported spending only about 10 minutes per day on reading materials other than textbooks. Major benefits are realised by reading 30 minutes every day.

Some of the benefits of reading include:

• Reading preserves language and culture.
• Reading builds intellectual and social skills, and boosts memory and cognitive function.
• Reading can help you to get a better job by making you more knowledgeable.
• Reading helps when you are struggling emotionally by providing new ideas, and can help to reduce stress while you think about other people, other worlds, and other things.
• Readers are better students and better writers.

So, reading regularly, reading widely and reading often will result in many personal as well as social and economic benefits.

There are many reasons why many young children in Cambodia cannot read; three are most prominent:

• Historically, greater attention has been given to access (being in school) than to the issue of quality (evaluating the result of time spent at school).
• Many primary school teachers do not have the required skills or knowledge to teach reading to early readers.
• There is a very limited amount of reading material available in Khmer language for different reading skill levels, and especially for first readers and early readers (children ages 3-5, and children ages 6-9).

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport is proactive about addressing the problem of low reading skills and poor reading habits in Cambodia, and it acknowledges that child reading skills have not reached national standards. This crucial first step will lead to further improvements if:

• The government ensures that instruction for teachers on reading skills is an explicit class in preservice training.
• There is consistent and constructive follow-up and coaching of Early Childhood Development teachers and early grade teachers.
• The minimum standards for library facilities and resources is assured in schools to provide children with access to more variety and a better reading environment.

Adults who are well read can model this for their children by encouraging reading every day. However, whether or not parents and caregivers have literacy skills, there are many things that can be done to support and encourage their children to read. Parents can foster the practice by turning routine activities into learning activities:

• Talk with your child, no matter how young they are – this builds a child’s vocabulary, fluency, and confidence in expressing themselves.
• Tell stories to share knowledge and culture – this builds a child’s sense of belonging, a sense of pride in their family and country.
• Feed your child’s mind – this promotes reading readiness. While making food for the family, ask your child to name the ingredients, count them, sort them by size or colour, and so forth.

Dr Jill Reimer is the technical lead for education and life skills at World Vision.

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