Raising readers

A love of books needs to be inculcated in children early on and cultivated throughout the years.

Ployraya has just turned three, but she has already mastered the Thai alphabet. She can also count to 10 with ease, she demonstrates proudly. The little girl loves books for children her age with lots of colourful pictures. She especially likes the ones with removable stickers.

Ployraya, whose nickname is August (after the month in which she was born in 2016), says she wants to learn to read and write. “I like stories about animals,” explains the girl, who is a diminutive tot with seemingly boundless energy and precocious wit. “I want to read them.”  

Right now is about the time her parents, who own a small business in Bangkok, should begin to help Ployraya embark on a lifetime of reading for pleasure so that the girl can start to learn about the world and all the fantastic things in it. Whether that will happen remains in doubt, though. Her mother, Ploypailin, is a university graduate now in her thirties, but she concedes that the last time she read a book was back in her schooldays more than a decade ago. “I don’t have time to read much,” the woman says, almost apologetically. “And when I do have some time I prefer to watch television or movies.”  She is hardly alone in that. A recent survey of 3,500 respondents across a dozen provinces by the Thai Publishers and Booksellers Association, in collaboration with Chulalongkorn University, revealed that on average Thais spend less than half an hour a day reading. And much of that, reading is of questionable value as it is mostly conducted online on smartphones and likely entails perusing Facebook posts and the like. 

Worse: the older young Thais get, the less they tend to read. Young people under 20 years of age — which is to say, those likely still in school — spend an average of 56 minutes reading every day, according to the survey. Yet once they are out of school most Thais stop reading much altogether beyond scanning short social media posts. And even schoolchildren and teenagers who do read more tend to peruse texts that are hardly the stuff of a well-rounded education: comics and cartoon novels, in addition to school textbooks ahead of exams. 

And it’s not as if young Thais don’t read proper books because they don’t have much time. The same survey found that Thai teenagers spend an average of 224 minutes, or almost four hours, a day online. That should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has witnessed Thai teenagers and college students immersed in their smartphones and tablets for hours on end. 

If anything, the figure cited by the survey could well be an underestimate. And all those endless hours spent online are largely dedicated to chatting with friends on messaging apps or posting pictures of meals, ice cream sundaes and new outfits on Facebook and Instagram. 

That is certainly a way to pass time but hardly one that offers any meaningful learning benefits.