March 8, 2005

ARTICLES: Developing a literate environment for children (INDONESIA)

Developing a literate environment for children

Ahmad Bukhori, Bandung

Early childhood education has gained more attention these days. Some people now recognize that the future of a nation lies in literacy education, or teaching children reading and writing-related skills.

In this global era, good literacy education that provides children with necessary skills to keep pace with other nations is really inevitable. The ongoing multifaceted crisis in Indonesia will worsen if people, especially children, are left uneducated and illiterate. Once this happens, we will experience an unimaginably saddening lost generation. To avoid this, we have to prepare our children by creating for them a supportive literary environment.

Literacy has various definitions. In its basic sense, literacy means the ability to read and write. Furthermore, Kirsch and Jungeblut in their book Literacy: Profile of America's Young Adult define literacy as the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and develop one's knowledge. In its wider sense, literacy may involve knowledge of information, politics, science and technology. Although there is no single definition of literacy, there is a universal agreement that everyone now needs a far higher literacy level than that was needed here in the past. And this requirement will continue to grow.

Literacy is the basis of a country's development. Dan Wagner of the University of Pennsylvania states that literacy, or a lack of it, closely relates to school dropout rates, poverty and unemployment. These are three important indices of human resource development that determine a country's position in the world -- an increasingly competitive, interrelated world. At present, literate children should not only be able to gain knowledge from what they read but also function well in the society they live.

A literate generation is an invaluable future investment. Considering its importance, some developed countries like the U.S. have established a program called, "No Child Left Behind". It is meant to guarantee that not a single American child grows up without getting the necessary literacy education and an appreciation of reading and information.

This guarantee is likewise really necessary for Indonesia. Once all our children are sufficiently literate, we will have a powerful civil society in the future. A society that is not only well-informed in reacting to provocative issues, but also one that is intelligent enough to analyze and be critical of bad government policies. It could also mean an end to threats of ethnic and religious clashes, and eventually lead to good governance. Considering how important a literate generation for our country is, we have to make every possible effort to build our children's literacy environment.

Of many literacy aspects, family literacy is very urgent. The most valuable gift parents can give to their children is literacy. Parents can do many things to boost their children's literacy at home. Even before a child is born, a pregnant woman, it is purported, can actually help build early literacy by reading aloud to her baby before it is born.

Extensive research has shown that reading aloud to children is the single most important thing a parent can do to prepare a child for future academic success.

In addition, other family's activities should also enhance children's reading interests. Besides reading aloud, parents can involve their children in activities that require reading such as reading recipes when cooking or reading directions in kite-making. They can also establish a reading time for their children, even if it is just ten minutes a day for instance. If children are school-aged, parents can write notes to their children and ask for their written responses, and ask them to borrow books from the school library. In general, parents should encourage children in all their reading efforts.

Besides family, school policies and activities should promote literacy development. Schools should implement literacy-based curriculum by focusing on and incorporating reading and writing. The teaching of reading at kindergarten or elementary school should also contribute to students' reading enjoyment and increase their interest in reading. To achieve this, Indonesian teachers must learn the modern strategies for teaching emergent readers. Then they can flood their students with a lot of reading materials that stimulate them to use their reading skills.

Along the same lines, teachers should incorporate reading and writing processes into critical thinking. This skill is really necessary to prepare a caring and empathetic generation. They can do this, as Miles Zintz of the University of Minnesota says, by involving students in evaluating, drawing inferences, and arriving at conclusions based on evidence found in their reading. The reading materials can involve the use of news in mass media such as newspapers, magazines, television and radio. In the process, they really need to develop a questioning attitude to become more discriminating consumers of news media, advertising campaigns and entertainment.

The government should consider literacy development as a priority by the provision of supporting policies. Books should free for all children. The establishment of actual functioning public libraries would be good too, particularly in cities. These libraries should be more accessible, adequately supplied and well operated by professional librarians. In villages and districts, local governments should facilitate the use of public offices for reading space and libraries.

Besides, other community members should also play their role significantly. Book stores should provide reading rooms as well as book discussions by inviting authors and other intellectuals. Book publishers should not only think of economic benefits to make books more affordable. All these suggestions will enhance reading interest that will lead to a critical, caring and empathetic generation.

It would be really heartwarming to see our children grow up with very high literacy. This will qualify them to successfully keep pace with other nations. This is unlikely to happen without our real and continuous support and determination. Our children will like reading if they are exposed to it more. In this way, we should pay more attention to early childhood education and parents need to be better examples. As the old saying goes: Like father, like son.

The writer is a Fulbright scholar and Kelly student with the School of Education at Boston University and a faculty member at the Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia Bandung. He can reached at


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