The Dawn of a New Day for Reading in Cambodia
March 23, 2016
Cambodia marked its first National Reading Day on March 11 – a public event that calls on Cambodians to embrace a love of reading. The event was one of the many recent steps taken by the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports (MoEYS) to improve the quality of education in Cambodia.
Global studies demonstrate a clear link between early grade reading and intellectual development of children, and continuing implications for adult learning. Cambodia still lacks such a culture of reading, which raises alarm bells regarding human resource development in the country, but also makes National Reading Day a particularly significant event.
A national reading test conducted with primary school students in 2010 revealed that 54 percent of students who have finished first grade could not read at an “acceptable level.” A National Early Grade Reading Assessment carried out in 2012 showed that one-third of second-grade students could still not read a single word. Part of the problem is the low levels of reading in the home. According to a recent small sample interview conducted by The Asia Foundation, only half of households of the primary students surveyed owned a children’s book and less than a third had more than two children’s books at home.
The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia has been a long-time contributor of books to public libraries and institutions, whether in ministries, universities, schools, or non-government organizations across Asia, and we recently launched a digital library companion to this. As of last year, our books donated to Cambodia alone have reached close to one million since the 1950s.
In these decades of work, we have found that inspiring a reading culture is much more than just putting books on shelves. As such, we have built the capacity of librarians to make educational resources available to students, supported efforts to develop original Khmer content, and have promoted reading contests among students. We have also worked with the Ministry of Education and the private sector to refurbish libraries to make them more appealing to young people.
Today, there is a big opportunity to encourage early-grade reading in Cambodia by more effectively integrating technology into learning and reading programs. The Asia Foundation, through a partnership with Library For All, and with two local implementing partners (KAPE and SIPAR), launched a digital library for Cambodian students in November 2015. In the pilot project, Khmer-language children’s e-books are available via a reading platform created by Library For All. An estimated 4,700 children in five primary schools and two mobile libraries are currently using the resources within the digital library.
Watching these students pour over the books in the tablets, it is no wonder why librarians in the target schools are seeing more students come in than before. Tea Mean, a sixth-grade teacher at Tanou primary school in Svay Rieng province, said: “The digital library is extremely helpful. Students get really excited about the books in the tablets. I think for them it’s about having all those new books in one place in their hands.”
One frequent comment from students is that they have already read the 100 books available in the digital library. Getting more content, especially books in Khmer-language besides folktales, is not easy. Incentives for local children’s book authors and publishers are few as consumer demand is low and intellectual property protections are minimal. Research conducted by Save the Children and SIPAR shows that parents were only willing to buy books for their children if each book cost less than $1. And, at that rate, they would buy only 2-5 books per year for their children.
Yet with Cambodia’s steady seven percent plus annual GDP growth, consumption of education material is only likely to increase. And interest in education is growing among Cambodia’s growing digital citizenry – the Ministry of Education has almost 1 million followers on Facebook. Innovations in payment mechanisms for books and book sponsorship programs linked to digital distribution could provide increased access to open educational resources in Cambodia.
In my view, Cambodia’s inaugural National Reading Day is a sign of the Ministry of Education’s strong commitment to improving reading culture, and delivers a new message to Cambodians: read to embrace change, read to improve educational attainment, read to get a better job, and read to improve the intellectual development of the country. Ultimately, a reading culture means shifting from a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach in our education system. As I have seen raising my own children, the love of reading is fostered by self-guided curiosity and the resources to support that curiosity. Information is power, and reading is not just an engine of professional growth, but also one of personal growth.
Siv Hong Lim is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in Cambodia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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