Building a national literacy movement: the power of a good story book

The growth of a strong reading culture in many parts of Indonesia remains a work in progress. At a recent workshop in Jakarta hosted by the Ministry of Education and Culture’s Centre for Curriculum and Books (Puskurbuk) in partnership with INOVASI, policy makers, book publishers and other education stakeholders came together to explore the challenges and opportunities for strengthening literacy – particularly amongst early grade students.

Helping children read will help a nation in more ways than one

When it comes to building and sustaining a national literacy movement in a country with great geographic and cultural diversity, challenges abound. Many Indonesian children in grades one to three are failing to grasp the basics of reading, leading to a range of learning issues in later primary school and early high school. Let’s not forget the impact on downstream workforce productivity. National assessment results paint a disappointing picture.

In response to this crucial issue, the motivation to strengthen literacy rates is clearly outlined in Indonesia’s technocratic development plan for 2015-19, linking an improvement in literacy to an improvement in national productivity, competitiveness and character values. Policy makers and educators continue to implement approaches to improve national literacy rates, one of these being the National School Literacy Movement.

Otherwise known as Gerakan Literasi Nasional (GLS), this movement was launched by Indonesia’s Minister of Education in 2016, along with new books, modules and guides on assessment and scoring for training facilitators. This was in support of the Ministerial Decree on Developing Character for students across Indonesia. At its core, the movement aims to strengthen synergy between key actors in Indonesia’s education system, expanding public involvement in the cultivation of a nation-wide literacy movement. School level strategies include initiatives like an additional 15 minutes of reading before class each day.

At the Puskurbuk workshop earlier this month, INOVASI’s Strategic Adviser Mary Fearnley-Sander delved into the details of what it really means to have strong literacy skills. As she explained, being literate is not just about an ability to read words. Other foundational skills include the ability to also:

  • Explain the reading theme and story
  • Interpret motivation
  • Draw conclusions and integrate ideas and information from the text
  • Distinguish facts from opinion
  • Find and evaluate evidence to support an argument
  • Analyse and synthesise what is being read and the writer’s expression

With these abilities, Indonesian children can grow into adults with ‘HOTS’, or higher order thinking skills – the ability to conduct strategic reasoning, problem solving and critical thinking. These are core skills for the 21st century.

The power of story books

When it comes to improving literacy and encouraging a love of reading amongst Indonesian students, there’s one lesson that policy makers and practitioners alike can agree on: never underestimate the power of a good story book.

In the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 results report, the link between reading and longer-term benefits was made clear.

“In all countries, students with high reading interest have better (significantly) learning outcomes than students who don’t like to read. Reading for pleasure is closely associated with better learning outcomes, if accompanied by a level of critical thinking and strategic approach to learning.”

The same was said in a 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy study (PIRLS) report.

“In all countries, students who read novels and short stories have better learning outcomes than students who read less. Students who rarely or never do this have low learning outcomes in most countries.”

Every year, PUSKURBUK releases a new list of books that can be purchased and used by those in the education sector. The categories include:

1. Subject books

2. Teacher’s book

3. Reference book

4. Enrichment books

But what makes a good story book, and which category do they fall under? As Mary explained in the workshop, story books are considered valuable if children can easily recognise the structure and meaning of the narrative or theme, if the story has motivation, if it can attract and hold their attention, and if it can relate a narrative to the child’s own environment. And of course, it must have illustrations. These story books are the basis of a reading culture.

Currently in Indonesia, the availability of such illustrated story books is an ongoing challenge. This includes the current approval process for books on the national Puskurbuk book list, an often slow and difficult process at the best of times. Due to delays and restrictions, story books from NGOs and other publishers are not readily included. Given that teachers and schools will only purchase those books on the list, limitations are felt at the classroom level and children’s learning suffers. Book supply is not keeping up with reading interest.

In North Kalimantan, an INOVASI partner province, results from INOVASI’s baseline surveys showed that more than 80 percent of children admit to like reading. However, in terms of types of books that are often read by children, about 67 percent are still dominated by textbooks. Only about 13 percent read story books, 2 percent read general knowledge books and the rest read comics, magazines and other books.

Said INOVASI’s North Kalimantan Provincial Manager Handoko Wigdado, “our survey has involved 540 students in 20 primary schools in Bulungan and Malinau. From there we find, the students generally read the textbooks from the school. It happens because the only books available are school textbooks. We are lacking books that can arouse children’s curiosity.”

In his opening remarks at the workshop, Moch. Abduh, Head of the Ministry’s Assessment Centre, spoke of the importance of the workshop and its outcomes for progressing the issue of story book availability and supply.

“When we look at the procurement of books currently, there’s a series of events that resulted in our office deciding to host this workshop. We can see that children have an interest in reading, but there are not many story books available – only text books. Kids get bored if they only have textbooks at school and at home. Hopefully outcomes from this workshop can lead to a review of the existing national book list. We need to discuss challenges for the future, and an action plan, including input from publishers, and the role of local government. It is our intention to improve the quality of Indonesia’s human resource development.”

INOVASI in North Kalimantan: linking local evidence to national policy discussions

Across its four partner provinces, INOVASI is implementing more than 45 education pilots, with many of these focused on early grade literacy. In North Kalimantan, where INOVASI works in both Malinau and Bulungan districts, efforts to improve and scale out approaches to strengthening literacy have been a core focus. This includes book supply and availability.

In 2018, with support from INOVASI, Bulungan became the first region in Indonesia to fund student reading books with BOSDA, local funding under the School Operational Assistance program. The funding allocation has been factored into Bulungan’s regional budget planning.

“This policy expands children’s opportunities, providing reading books that can build their imagination and strengthen their character,” explained Mr Suparmin Seto, Head of the Basic Education Desk at Bulungan Education Office, during a 2018 BOSDA Coordination Meeting in Tanjung Selor, Kaltara.

Under this new district policy, each school is required to purchase a wide range of books, including novels, story books, comics, and books on history, literature and general knowledge topics. Schools are required to spend the BOSDA budget to provide at least five new books with five different titles each year. The availability of these books is expected to foster a reading culture for 24,094 Bulungan students in 778 primary schools and 245 junior high schools. The provision of these books is also regulated in the latest technical guidelines for the use of BOSDA in Bulungan.

Bulungan has also established a literacy team to approve books and the Governor’s wife was appointed as ‘Bunda Baca’; a passionate advocate for literacy and reading across the province. Coordination between village administrations and schools has been stepped up, NGOs are providing children’s books and INOVASI is trialling the use of digital books projected onto the classroom wall for ‘shared reading’. Efforts to improve literacy outcomes are in full swing.

Recently at the national level, and with input from INOVASI, Puskurbuk passed a decree on the expansion of children’s reading book use from early childhood (PAUD) level to early grade primary school level. This means that in 2019, Indonesian primary schools will be allowed to spend central BOS funds on children’s reading book procurement. This is a positive step in the right direction.

What are the next steps?

Moving into 2019, INOVASI will continue to gather and communicate evidence from its literacy pilots, both in North Kalimantan and other partner provinces, of what does and doesn’t work to strengthen literacy outcomes. Building on the outcomes of this December workshop with Puskurbuk, further discussions will be held to continue looking at how the book approval process can be streamlined.

Recommendations arising from this month’s Puskurbuk workshop will also be followed up, including the need to conduct a more regular review of the national book list so that more children’s story books can be included and accessed at the district and school level.

With the power of a good story book, we can see real progress for Indonesian children.

Building a national literacy movement: the power of a good story book