Cultivating the Reading Habit in Cambodia

This timely article from Asia Times (“Cultivating the reading habit in Cambodia” – May 31, 2019) coincides with national reading day programs that will take place at CFC primary schools on Thursday, June 13th. CFC’s focus on literacy begins with our Early Childhood Education program and extends through students’ high school years. Our nine school libraries are regularly full of students seeking learning and exploration through reading, and our teachers also work to engage parents to borrow books to foster their children’s interest in reading at home.

Cultivating the reading habit in Cambodia

For Cambodia, literacy is believed to be one of the most crucial components for country’s development. However,  having the ability to read and write alone is not sufficient for prosperous growth. Cambodians need to adopt reading as a habit. This hobby can lead to self-development and thus help the social and economic growth of the nation to thrive.

The government has acknowledged literacy and reading problems and has initiated social events to raise awareness and draw public attention to reading, such as a National Reading Day and book fairs. The most recent effort was the fourth Cambodian National Reading Day, which concluded in March with around 68,000 participants. Three days of collaborative events between the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport and the National Library of Cambodia aimed at captivating students’ interest in reading.

The idea is great, but it does not effectively address the root cause of Cambodians’ low reading rate.

With heavy emphasis on the importance and benefits of reading, little attention is given to personal behavior – that is, the habit of reading, which some would argue is more effective in improving literacy skills, especially in children. In addition, while boasting one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies, Cambodia is desperately in need of human capital to sustain this growth. Reading is one of the key ingredients for human resources to prosper in line with the kingdom’s long-term developments.

Children who read as a hobby will find themselves more critical, able to think faster and smarter, compared with those who don’t. The hobby will shape the way they think and make them more creative

It is worth noting the clear distinction between having the ability to read and adopting the habit of reading – indeed, there is a difference between literacy and reading on a daily basis. Whether from textbooks or from novels, readers will learn something new. Children who read as a hobby will find themselves more critical, able to think faster and smarter, compared with those who don’t. The hobby will shape the way they think and make them more creative. It will also provide new information and fresh insights to readers.

The reading culture of the country can be traced back in Cambodia’s history. One of the top Cambodian writers, Sok Chanphal, blamed the Khmer Rouge regime for the downfall of Khmer literacy in an interview with the Sydney Review of Books in 2016. Education was abolished, while schools and libraries were destroyed and teachers killed, he noted.

The adult literacy rate according to a Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey was 84.4% in 2016, which is a terrific and promising piece of data for a developing country like Cambodia. On the supply side, the Ministry of Information reported last year, there are around 138 publishing houses operating in the country. However, there are no statistics on actual reading. We do not know how many books the average Cambodian reads per year or how many minutes on average they spend on reading.

Most young Cambodians read mainly because of their academic obligations. They tend to read only if it is assigned by lecturers or to prepare for examinations. Few would read on their free time, or out of a habit, said a group of junior students at the Institute of Foreign Languages. One of them told me: “I find reading boring and do not have commitments to read. Rather I will see myself on social media or play games to kill time.”

They said they grew up in environments that did not encourage students to read. All they did was memorize lessons that teachers assigned, which discourages students from finding enjoyment in reading.

In the aforementioned article published by the Sydney Review of Books, Mak Suong, another famous Cambodia writer, said: “Cambodian people don’t like reading books. They only spend their time with social media, especially youth. So I don’t publish new books.”

To infuse and motivate people’s interest in reading, it is important to start at the earliest stage of life. Parents should be the role models to inspire their kids. Children will replicate what they see. If parents like to read, there is a greater chance that children will adopt reading as a habit as well. Additionally, electronic devices can help cultivate children’s interest. Parents may find fun and attractive topics for their child to read from electronic devices and reward them with entertaining videos whenever they have accomplished the task.

However, there could also be unintended consequences of using e-devices, as children may get addicted to watching videos on them more than reading.

Reading should be perceived as a habit, not as an obligation. When children are doing it as a hobby, they will never find it boring, and they will have the desire to read more and more. The incentive to explore, willingness to be curious, the desire to learn something new should be what motivates them to read.

In addition, we should not forget the remarkable role of authors and writers who have a great impact on reading behavior, as well as the promotion of Khmer literature. The government should praise the works of authors and value their status in society. This will provide great motivation and encourage more people to get involved in the Cambodia writing industry. With high competitiveness, we will see more interesting, original and creative content that provide readers rich options to choose from.

To move forward, Cambodian youth and children need to adopt a reading mindset, as it will help Cambodian literature thrive and, in the long run, contribute to the growth of the nation, including economically.

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