In Mongolia, Making Time to Read with Young Children
September 28, 2022
Mongolia is a country that boasts a high literacy rate (99 percent), strong primary school attendance and completion statistics (97 percent and 93 percent), and a culture that values books and reading. Despite these positive indicators, however, a deeper dive finds that, according to 2018 UNICEF data, only 67 percent of Mongolian three- and four-year-olds are developmentally on track with expected literacy and numeracy standards.
Several factors may be contributing to this challenge in early childhood education, including well-documented crowding and space limitations at kindergartens in urban areas, but a recent survey by The Asia Foundation and the Independent Research Institute of Mongolia (IRIM) suggests that the learning environment at home for young children may also play a part. This survey, on the practice of reading with young children by parents and caregivers in Ulaanbaatar, found that fewer than 10 percent of children age five or younger are read to on a daily basis, and under 40 percent at least once a week.
These figures represent a significant missed opportunity to invest in children’s development, happiness, and school readiness. Eighty percent of a child’s brain development takes place by the age of three, and there is significant research showing that reading aloud with young children improves their communication and comprehension skills. It also builds personality, sparks curiosity, develops concentration, and enhances social, emotional, and cognitive growth.
The survey, which consisted of a representative sample of the population of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, was fielded by IRIM in early 2022. The survey results identified several reasons why reading with young children is not a more common practice among Mongolian families.
First was a misconception about the appropriate age to start reading with children. While a majority of parents surveyed (73 percent) were aware of the importance of reading to their children and encouraging them to love books, half (49.7 percent) believed the appropriate age to start reading with children was three years or older. This may indicate that reading is seen primarily as an activity to teach children to read, a narrow view of the benefits of reading aloud.
Many parents also indicated that they believed their preschool or kindergarten was already doing enough reading with their children, a perspective that undervalues the special role of parents in stimulating young children and creating language-rich environments.
These misconceptions clearly contribute to the lack of consistent reading habits among the Mongolian families surveyed, but by a large margin the most common reason that parents and caregivers gave for not reading to their children was a lack of time. A range of factors in urban life may be contributing to this lack of time: long workday commutes in heavy traffic, the need for low-income families to work multiple jobs, the expectation that high earners will work long hours, and so forth. Research shows, however, that even reading a single book a day will expose a young child to hundreds of thousands more words by the time they reach kindergarten, and the time commitment required to meet this standard is not out of reach for most families.
This issue of time is a central theme of the social media campaign “15 Minutes” that was recently launched by the Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read Mongolia program with funding from the Lorinet Foundation. The “15 Minutes” campaign is a creative attempt to provide reminders, encouragement, tools, and information to parents and caregivers about reading with young children. The campaign will combine social media posts and viral content with traditional media, including television, and in-person reading events. These in-person events will include regular Storytime sessions at bookstores, libraries and other spaces, as well as pop-up Storytime events in eye-catching settings to help drive social media engagement. A nightly televised Storytime program is also being planned to try to rebuild the culture of reading books before bedtime. Challenges, competitions, and other forms of positive reinforcement will also be integrated to help this campaign generate lasting behavioral change.
Let’s Read Mongolia’s strategy to promote reading with young children extends well beyond the “15 Minutes” campaign, and has developed a broad approach to encouraging reading, including commissioning Mongolian translations and the creation of new Mongolian-language books, promoting the Let’s Read mobile app that gives access to free books, holding regular Storytime events across Ulaanbaatar, and working at the community level to better inform caregivers and teachers about the importance of reading.
Running throughout the “15 Minutes” campaign and the whole project are the messages that regular, daily reading can be transformational for a child’s development, and that the time commitment is manageable if reading becomes part of a daily routine. By supplementing the reminders with book suggestions, the Let’s Read free digital library, and information on how to read effectively with children, the project provides the tools to start a reading routine at home. In three years’ time The Asia Foundation and its partners will conduct a follow-up survey on the reading habits of Mongolians with young children, with the hope that the positive initial response to the campaign will bear fruit in measurable increases in the number of families reading weekly and daily with their young children.
Mark Koenig is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Mongolia, Khaliun Boldbaatar is a program officer for special projects, and Khaliun Ganzorig is a project officer for Let’s Read Mongolia. They can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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