Access vs Book Reading Habit
Penulis/Peneliti : Setiono Sugiharto


Bidang Penelitian : Linguistik


Jurnal : The Jakarta Post


Volume : 16 Oktober 2010


Tahun : 2010


In an interview with The Jakarta Post (Sept. 13), Iwan Boyor, a coordinator of Bengkel Ide (a non-government organization offering free education for children in slum areas) rebutted the idea that illiteracy rates were decreasing every year, adding that despite having a good program for illiteracy elimination, the Jakarta Education Agency often missed its target in its implementation. 

This remark was certainly justified. There are good reasons to claim that illiteracy rates are increasing rather than plummeting, and that the programs in place for illiteracy elimination are not working.

First, a great number of people (children and adults) still live in poverty-stricken areas, and are therefore less likely to enjoy access to books both at schools and at home. As poverty strongly correlates with literacy levels, it makes no sense to claim that illiteracy rates have plummeted while poverty prevails. 

Second, the illiteracy elimination program (locally known as program pemberantasan buta huruf) has failed not simply, as many have said, because of corrupt-minded officials, but rather because of our ignorance of what people really need to be able to read and write. 

We are unfortunately often ill-advised; that illiteracy exists due to our people’s lack of awareness of the importance of reading and writing. Our culture, as many blatantly assert, is devoid of literacy culture, but instead is replete with oral culture. So prevalent is this assertion that many people have perceived it as an axiom.

It should be understood at the outset that illiteracy exists because people have been plagued with lingering poverty, which means it is very difficult for them to get access to educational material, particularly libraries and books. It has nothing to do with the tenuous dichotomy of an oral versus literary culture.

In this respect, it is a socio-economic variable rather than a lack of awareness that plays the largest role in the importunate illiteracy levels in this country. 

Stephen Krashen (1996) produced intriguing research that consistently revealed that children from higher socio-economic backgrounds had higher levels of literacy than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. 

His research showed that more and better education resulted in better literacy rates and greater knowledge of subject matter. It also showed that living in a print-rich environment, with more books available both at home and at schools, greatly affected literacy development; and, that better access to libraries and books at home indisputably resulted in better literacy development.

Literacy campaigns exhorting the virtues of reading to the public (children, youths and adults) will 
be a waste of time and have no beneficial impacts unless poverty is curbed first. 

In fact, there is no need to urge people to read since reading is clearly a pleasant activity that has become a regular activity for young and old people who can afford to do so.

Dealing with poverty is the first step the government needs to take before it can get the public to enjoy reading. We need to understand that many children in slum areas in Greater Jakarta, not to mention in other big cities across the country, are children of poverty. 

These children not only lack access to education, to books of their own, to libraries, and to quiet, pleasant places for reading, but also often suffer serious diseases and malnutrition, which impede their physical and cognitive growth.

However, having long grappled with problems of illiteracy in Indonesia, the government seemed to be hitting the nail on the head when the National Education Ministry announced plans to provide school textbooks free of charge to students in 2011.

For one thing, this is a salutary policy that was made by the government following the demise of 
Soeharto’s New Order regime. During this regime, apart from free access to education, text-books and books of various genres were distributed free of charge to state schools nationwide. 

Parents didn’t have to worry about the additional expense of books for their children. These state-sponsored books flooded school libraries, and every student had the right to borrow them for up to a year before returning them.

It will probably take many years for Indonesia to overcome its poverty. However, providing free access to books and libraries should be the state’s top priority in efforts to improve literacy rates. It seems that establishing more Taman Bacaan Masyarakat (community libraries) and Perpustakaan Keliling (mobile libraries) is not only a great idea, but the only option we have in the face of prevailing poverty.

To this end, we should remind ourselves of the research findings mentioned above: More access to free school textbooks, and in particular better public access to free books on a variety of subjects, including at school libraries, can pave the way toward improving literacy.

The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta. He is also the chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.