"When children are surrounded by a culture that values and celebrates literacy, there is a greater chance that they will develop a habit and love of reading."
by Dr. Cory Heyman
This week, I am participating in the 60th annual Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Conference, an event that fosters discourse and debate within the international education community about solving the world’s education challenges. I undoubtedly know that we will spend much time listening to novel and innovative ideas presented in research and best practices that focus on the child such as educator-child interactions — and there will be many more crucial topics to ensuring high quality educational opportunities are provided to deserving children around the world.
However, as we take stock of where we have been and look forward to where we are headed under the newly inaugurated Sustainable Development Goals, many at the forefront of these issues agree on the importance of the role of the community in relation to the learning of the child. Our collective research and experiences prove that systemic change that improves the national education landscape, particularly in low-income countries where the need is greatest, will only occur when the community environment bolsters the learnings instilled within the school environment.
Every child is born with his or her own set of natural inclinations, or base skills that are further developed during a lifetime and adapted within the context of society. CIES attracts dozens of educational practitioners and researchers, including those of us from Room to Read, all of whom are committed to developing effective programs focused on supporting children’s individual academic journeys. But what does a child do if his or her community is not providing both a societal and physical context that reinforces the individual support received?
Imagine what it is like to live in an environment where books and words are not all around you because the majority of the community is illiterate. Or, imagine a childhood where your parents don’t read to you because they either can’t afford books or lack the ability to read. That is the reality in so many communities in low-income countries.
Societal context is crucial to unlocking a generation of educated and empowered children. And this premise holds true both in high-income and low-income countries. When my daughter, Josephine started elementary school she was silently struggling with her literacy skills. As her friends and classmates were developing their reading fluency and comprehension, Josephine was simply lost alongside them. After some time of observing her peers surpass her, she voiced frustration with her thwarted progress because she saw those around her developing a love of reading. We were able to identify dyslexia as the cause of her challenges. Without the social context of her classmates developing a habit of reading, Josephine may never have gotten the support and interventions she needed to succeed in primary school.
Physical context is also important as it can be challenging to encourage reading among children not already immersed in an environment that demonstrates a strong culture of literacy. When text, such as street signs or newspapers, are not embedded in the public space and reading is not the norm it becomes challenging to place a high value on literacy.
For this reason, one component Room to Read builds into our Literacy Program is creating print-rich environments. We ensure there are engaging, print-rich libraries which are normally lacking in resource-deprived communities.
Having a physical space that showcases a literate population is one step toward building a critical mass to establish a culture of reading — a context where a love of reading is replicated child by child and a community of children are filled with a desire to pick up a book, turn the pages and anticipate stories habitually for the rest of their lives. The print-rich library, we have observed, often inspires families to bring books into their home and literacy penetrates all aspects of a child’s environment.
It is clear that when children are surrounded by a culture that values and celebrates literacy, there is a greater chance that they will develop a habit and love of reading. As proof of this concept is developed community by community, Room to Read is developing evidence of success at the local level which is being replicated on a national scale.
Our long-term commitment and engagement with the government are key factors that build trust and understanding with government officials. Working directly with relevant government ministries, we are able to target our programs to have meaningful impact at all levels from the child and school to influencing national curriculum and educational policy — as well as ultimately influencing the global education movement.
All of us attending CIES know the harsh reality that almost 40% of all primary school-age children in the world are not learning basics like reading and writing. By working with governments and communities to elevate a habit and love of reading, in the classroom and everywhere else, it is my hope that these children will value literacy and demand to achieve it.
Dr. Cory Heyman is Room to Read’s Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of Room to Read Accelerator, a technical assistance unit designed to train government and partner organizations to deliver award-winning programs in literacy and girls’ education.
Learn more about Room to Read’s Literacy Program.
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