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Why are Indonesian students suffering from the reading crisis?

It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own. (Katherine Patterson)

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The previous article, Reading Crisis: The Culprit of Indonesian Education Low Quality, shows that Indonesia's national education that had lasted for almost 75 years has been successful in terms of quantity aspects but is still slumped in terms of quality. One of the main causes is the reading crisis suffered by most students. Since the modern education system is highly dependent on literacy, negligence of reading will directly harm learning quality. To discuss the topic further, this article deals with the causing factors of the reading crisis.

Because reading is a complex activity that involves many aspects, its teaching success or failure is determined by many factors. Thomas (2019) explains that reading is a complex cognitive process mediated by social and cultural practices and requiring instruction and interaction with texts and others to construct meaning. This definition reveals that reading is conducted to build meaning by interacting with texts and involves cognitive, physical, social, and cultural aspects and the media. In addition, in contrast to speaking skills that can be acquired naturally, reading skills must be taught.

The following description of the reading crisis causes among Indonesian students is based on an elaboration of the definition of reading above. First of all, the definition states that reading involves the reader’s cognition and physical. In these aspects, the majority of Indonesian children do not have obstacles to master reading skills. The percentage of children with special needs learning inclusively in public primary schools is small. However, ACDP research (2012) revealed that only 50% of grade 3 students from 184 elementary schools in 7 provinces in Indonesia could read fluently and understood most (not all) of the contents of the text they read. Thus, the failure of learning to read seems to be more influenced by factors related to teacher teaching, socio-culture, and the media.
First, the reading instructions have not yet managed to develop students’ basic reading skills and interest in reading for pleasure. As mentioned earlier, the failure to master the basic reading skills will impede students to read for fun, and the lack of reading for pleasure will eventually hamper their interest in reading to learn and reading for functional goals. Makenzi (2004) asserts that student’s lack of basic reading skills mastery has caused millions of children in developing countries unable to develop further reading skills like their peers in developed countries have enjoyed. 

ACDP's finding (2012) that only 29% of teachers used effective methods and student-centered learning approach in reading instruction confirms that the teachers’ instructional factors contributed significantly to the reading crisis among Indonesian students. Therefore, to increase students’ mastery of basic reading skills in the future, teachers might need special training in how to teach reading effectively. 
The second cause is the cultural factor overemphasizing on oral communication. Historically, Indonesian culture was not oriented towards written communication. Ancient writings discovered in various regions of Indonesia are dominated by religious texts, not scientific records. By tradition, those entitled to read the texts are merely religious leaders, i.e., priests or monks. Laypersons are supposed to study the texts only by listening to sermons or talks. As a result, community members become accustomed only to verbal communication. Such tradition still occurs in various forms of activity to this day. That is why, reading to learn, functional reading, let alone reading for pleasure are unfamiliar activity for most Indonesians. At schools, including at the primary level, many teachers unconsciously feel more comfortable to use the lecture method in their classroom. If we want to improve our national education, transforming our oral tradition to literacy is highly necessary.
The third cause is the learning approach that directs the students to master the art of passing an examination, particularly the national exam. This tendency makes teachers prioritize the completion of all teaching material in which students merely listen to the explanations, take notes or summarize the material, and then memorize them. As a result, students are not given the opportunity for pleasure reading and are not assigned reading to learn. many teachers even feel that applying the Minister of Education and Culture Regulation No. 23 of 2015, which requires all students to read 15 minutes before a class begins, will only reduce the time to complete the 'targeted’ teaching material. Concerning this, the elimination of the national exam since 2020 as an effort to realize the policy of “Learning Free” by the Minister of Education and Culture Nadiem Makarim opens the way to increase opportunities for students to increase their reading skills mastery and interest.
The next cause is poor reading facilities and infrastructure. Up to now, school libraries' development and the provision of books have not been a priority. It has long been a public secret that most schools in remote areas do not have adequate libraries. Even school libraries in big cities are also not well managed. The book collection tends to consist of textbooks only. Books that support reading for pleasure are very limited. Even if such books exist, most are old-fashioned and worn-out publications. How can we expect such facilities can foster students’ interest in reading which can grow only if they are facilitated by various interesting books they can grab at any time? Fayose’s (2003) study revealed that adolescents in Nigeria did not read for pleasure because they could not find interesting books. The majority (85%) of the adolescents studied stated that they did not visit the library because the existing book collection did not meet their interests.
The fifth is technological misuse. Because learning tends to be directed towards exams (the third cause above), and the exam questions are dominated by 'objective tests', students feel memorizing the main points of the subjects is sufficient. To get the main points, reading the textbooks is not necessary because accessing the very brief summaries available on the Internet is more practical and convenient. Such a habit of merely reading the summaries from the Internet will surely cause two fatal losses in terms of reading. First, the students become accustomed to getting things instantly and easily and this makes them impatient to read deeply, especially long and dense (complex) printed texts. Second, because they prefer simple and short texts, they often do not care about the validity and quality of the text they read. As a result, their ability to read critically is decreasing. (No wonder why 65% of Indonesians are easily fooled by fake news).
Finally, students’ reading development lacks family support. As mentioned earlier, reading interest development should ideally start by reading stories to children when they begin to master the verbal language. Then, when they are able to read independently (in grade 2 or 3), facilitating them with lots of interesting books is highly necessary. However, many parents in Indonesia still ignore this. Additionally, some parents even still hold the view that reading is not important. As a result, although they have money, buying books is considered unnecessary.
This article identifies six causes of the reading crisis among Indonesian students. Based on this identification, some strategies to solve the crisis are discussed in the article titled Strategies to Solve Indonesian Students’ Reading Crisis. ***

Do you have a personal experience concerning reading interest and reading skills development?  We’d like to hear from you. Please write your views or feedback in the comments section below.
The Indonesian version of this article could be accessed here
Author: Parlindungan Pardede (


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