Fostering the habit of reading: improving learning amongst rural communities
in Sri Lanka
“Please help me improve my reading. My reading time is from 6.00 pm to 7.00 pm. If you wish to quiz me on what I have read, you can approach me at 7.30.” Notes ten-year-old Tharshika on her timetable posted on the wall next to her reading table.
Reading for pleasure is not the norm, nor considered an important skill to be fostered, in her community in Pallai, Kilinochchi, in northern Sri Lanka. Importance, however, is given to reading and learning from school textbooks.
Fortunately for Tharshika, her mother learned about the importance of reading through a village level community mobilization activity and agreed to take on the initiative to foster reading habits in her children. “I was explained the advantages of good reading habits. It took much persuasion to convince us to take part in the programme”, says 36-year-old Ms. Pushpamalar
“Once we agreed, the community mobilizers engaged with my daughter, giving her all the advice and motivation necessary to start reading regularly. My daughter was eager.”
“My task was to support her by ensuring she had a steady supply of books to read and that she commits to her regular reading schedule. A regular supply of books is not easy, but I do my part consistently.”
Tharshika’s father is a retail trader and sole breadwinner for the family of six. Therefore, money does not extend to buying books to keep up a regular reading habit. Access to a school library is limited to 40 minutes per week and she cannot borrow books from there. To ensure Tharshika has a regular supply of books, the mother gets her teenaged niece to cycle to a bigger library some miles away in Pallai town. Though Tharshika depends on whatever her cousin brings, she is content with the selection.
“I like stories with animals in them – particularly those with a moral,” she says. She has now become quite a storyteller too. A talent she acquired from her grandmother who keeps her entertained with a host of mythological tales. Once she’s finished with a book, she goes to tell the story to her mother and grandmother, as well as her friends.
Pushpamalar explains the changes she sees in her children since they fostered the reading habits: “It’s been about 6 months since we got involved in the reading programme. Tharshika took to reading without any trouble. My elder son (16) and she are both avid readers now and as a result, are more disciplined and studious than before. They were not badly behaved children before but tended to be more interested in play than studies.”
“Tharshika especially, did not have the patience to sit at her table. She used to charm me and run off to play with her friends whenever I tried to get her to study, now she is not so recalcitrant when it comes to staying in her study room with her books.”
At the mobilizers’ instigation, a little room has been set aside as an exclusive study room for little Tharshika and her brother. . She has put up her timetable as well as several quotes on reading that she has cut out into heart shaped paper on the study room walls.
“We have a study room which my elder brother and I use for our homework. This is also where I sit and read after finishing my homework. I usually read after nightfall, after having done my homework – so I don’t miss play with my friends. And my brother sits with me and reads too, so it’s easy.”
“My ability to read has improved a lot just after a few months of consistent reading. My teacher at school also noted this and complimented me” Tharshika says with pride. Her mother concurs. “She used to stumble over her words whenever I made her read aloud. Now she is speed-reading smoothly,” she says.
The community activity is part of the Educational Environment Improvement Project being implemented in the Kilinochchi District since 2018 by UNICEF, together with civil society organization (CSO) partner Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), with the financial assistance from the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). The project aims to enhance education for more than 5000 children in the district through improved learning conditions, including school facilities, teaching and learning methods and community awareness and strengthening.
Having been one of the reluctant parents to sign up her children for the reading program, Tharshika’s mother is now a big fan. It has inspired her she says, to ensure that her children consistently get a steady supply of books to keep up their habit. “This is a very worthwhile program for children’s development. I am so glad my children have been fostered by this program and are reaping the benefits from it. I too use the time allocated for reading. I read alongside them. Sometimes a book. Or a newspaper.”