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Helping children read

MAIN STORY: This is the story of a little girl who loved reading books. She preferred the company of books to her friends. She read books from the only library her uncle and aunt owned in a quaint little town of Samdrupjongkhar. Her lifelong journey of reading started in this way.

This is a true story. This is my story, said Chador Wangmo to an enraptured audience comprising of different school-going children during a book forum conducted by the Bhutan Children’s Book Initiative (BCBI) last month.

BCBI is a project aimed towards making children better readers. It was launched in 2014 and is a collaboration programme of education ministry, Royal Education Council (REC) and Save the Children.

Today, Chador Wangmo has authored nine children books and a novel. Her career as a writer took a full swing after she left her teaching job in 2015. With plenty of free time in her hands and with the habit of reading growing still, she began writing children’s book.

“As a teacher, I realised that children hardly knew the folk tales of the country, which are mostly orally transmitted from a parent to a child. There were hardly any folk tales written for children of the lower grades. So my first four books comprised of folk tales,” Chador Wangmo said. “There are limited children’s books authored by local writers today. So with the help of BCBI, I wrote two books, which were distributed to schools throughout the country.”

Participants of Bhutan Children's Book Initiative at Ariya Hotel
Participants of Bhutan Children’s Book Initiative at Ariya Hotel

When writing children’s book, other than the folk tales, Chador tries to balance the story with the right length, kinds of words and kind of themes. “Children’s literature is important since it provides students with opportunities to respond to literature through the colourful pictures and texts. It also helps students understand and appreciate about their own cultural heritage as well as those of others through the books.”

Providing children with the right reading material from a young age is important, Chador Wangmo said. “Through books and reading, it helps students develop emotional intelligence and creativity, it nurtures growth and development of the student’s personality and social skills.”

The author of The History of Bhutan and director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation, Dr Karma Phuntsho said, Bhutan is moving from an oral past directly into the audio-visual world of hi-tech social media.

“Our children are not reading enough to obtain the cognitive and emotional intelligence, which they can gain effectively through reading. Their minds are restless and scattered with flood of audio-visual information and they do not develop the psychological stability and concentration needed for a happy life, particularly by finding a stable cultural footing,” Dr Karma Phuntsho said. “This is partly due to the lack of interesting and educating reading materials. Shejun and I hope to bring out a series of books for children in the near future.”

With writers like Chador Wangmo and Dr Karma Phuntsho, who are planning to bring in more varieties of children’s book in the market, children are given an opportunity to become better readers.

BCBI’s programme development coordinator, Bishal Rai, said children prefer reading books from local authors because they can connect with the stories.

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“They can relate to the story and characters of the books and in this way they are encouraged to read more,” Bishal Rai said.

According to an assessment of reading materials conducted by BCBI, it found that existing reading materials lacked the power to stimulate children’s imagination, provide exciting plots, and characters, proper illustrations, creative designs in order to create an endearing reading experience.

“Pictures are important in children’s literature since children can learn or create their own stories through pictures. Even an illiterate parents can narrate a different stories just by pointing out to the pictures to their children,” Bishal Rai said. “There are lots of imported children’s books as well. Some are of good but most lack the proper content to trigger children’s imagination.”

Bishal Rai added that this assessment was done before BCBI was formed. With these findings, through BCBI, local writers and illustrators were given trainings on the importance of providing a wide selection of reading materials for children.

Throughout the world, assessments done on the importance of reading show that those children who read continue with their schooling and have better grades and vice-versa.

Despite such findings, local authors are discouraged to write because of the lack of market to sell their books, Bishal Rai said. “Through BCBI, we hope to make their business sustainable. We supply the books to schools. In this way, we hope to encourage more writers to produce good children’s book. We also hope to eventually create a sustainable market where writers can sustain in the market on their own.”

According to a baseline survey conducted by BCBI in 2014 in primary schools of Thimphu, Zhemgang, Paro and Dagana, it concludes that there is a limited access of storybooks to young children, which is further constrained by an absence of book borrowing practices.

The survey further found that socio economic status did not affect reading habits at school but it affected reading habits at home. Children belonging to household with lower socio economic status were less likely to read.

BCBI’s objective is to improve the supply of high quality books and increase the demand for high quality children’s book in these schools. The goals of BCBI are in line with the National Reading programme.

BCBI was implemented after we found that there was a lack of appropriate and relevant books for pre-primary students, Bishal Rai said. “ We also found that there was limited professional publishing houses and inadequate demand of high quality children’s book. There was also a lack of easy access to good books for children alongside poor management and use of the existing books for children in schools.”

After the implementation of BCBI, about 352 reading corners, classrooms and libraries were established in 64 primary schools in tow pilot districts of Thimphu and Zhemgang. About 20 children’s book were developed, published and provided to the schools.

Despite achievements made under the BCBI project, there are challenges of sustaining the project. We are looking for ways to carry the project and continue with the same momentum, Bishal Rai said.

Thinley Zangmo

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