After launching an expensive campaign to promote a culture of reading in 2013 that achieved only moderate success, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is giving it another stab.
City Hall and The Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth) last weekend launched a campaign called "Free Books for Early Childhood Children", which aims to drive up kids' reading abilities amid concern about all the potential learning lost during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It will see free books given to kids aged up to six years old who live in the Kao Phatthana, Supsin Kao and Phlub Phla communities of Wang Thonglang district in Bangkok. ThaiHealth, a foundation that receives funding from the taxes levied on alcohol and aims to promote a healthy lifestyle, expects to expand the campaign nationwide.
The campaign is based on the latest research by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), a respected think-tank, which shows how early childhood reading has fallen due to the pandemic, negatively affecting children's cognitive skills and language development.
While this effort is laudable, the BMA and other organisers must be careful to avoid repeating the same mistakes they made nine years ago. Bangkok was named the World Book Capital in 2013 by Unesco and City Hall spent 1.4 billion baht to promote a culture of reading and develop related facilities in the city including the construction of the City Library on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. However, critics lambasted City Hall for lavishing money on a public relations blitz that involved hiring movie stars to promote the event. Meanwhile, its pledges to create reading spaces throughout the city -- such as at department stores, parks or bus or train stations -- have yet to materialise.
Imbuing people with a love of reading is no easy task. It requires a nurturing environment, such as affordable books, financial support from the government to help keep businesses and writers stay afloat, good libraries and attractive reading activities at school and community levels, as well as campaigners who know how to encourage children and adults to read more.
For the latest campaign, the BMA and ThaiHealth must not forget that parents in communities may not be well-equipped to read to their kids. Organisers must find a way to help adults in low-income communities find the means and time to read to their kids, or else run activities such as storytelling activities to keep children engaged. They must curate high-calibre books that are appropriate for children, rather than just whatever is donated.
Hopefully, the campaign will succeed and be expanded throughout low-income communities countrywide. In the future, the BMA and the government should extend similar reading programmes to farming and other such communities for even greater inclusivity.
Thai students are notorious for performing poorly in terms of their reading skills.
According to the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) in 2018, one-third of all 15-year-olds are "functionally illiterate". This makes it so much harder for students to learn and grow.
For years, the government has invested heavily in improving education. The Ministry of Education has received a significant budget, yet the outcome has been less than satisfactory. A good start would be to imbue children with a genuine love of reading -- the first step to a good education.