Young children need time to develop reading skills and a welcoming environment in which to practice. Schools in many countries struggle on both counts. Teachers face large classes and packed curricula, meaning it’s tough to find time to help or encourage individual children who are beginning to learn to read. The school environment can also provide an obstacle. Furniture and classroom layout are usually arranged according to academic principles – with desks facing forward, discouraging collaboration and sharing among students. This arrangement makes it hard to separate reading from grading, and to instead connect reading to enjoyment.
A place for libraries in the literacy picture
Beyond Access believes that public libraries can serve as the ideal complement to literacy programs, providing flexible time and space where children and their caregivers can begin associating reading with pleasure without the confines of performance pressures and grades.
In Bangladesh, Beyond Access is working with Save the Children to help libraries throughout the country fulfill this promise. One major hurdle has been library space itself. Though the country boasts thousands of community libraries, many were set up with the idea of serving older students who tend to spend time studying, and adults, who seek out a quiet refuge to read the news or literature.
Bringing children to the library for the first time
But libraries can serve those traditional groups as well as younger children, and Beyond Access is helping libraries develop the flexibility to do so. We recently visited Gyandip Gonogronthagar (Light of Knowledge Public Library) in Karra Kawaljani, Mirzapur in Tangail district. This small, one-room library serves a village of about 1000 people in a farming community about two hours outside of Dhaka. It’s one of 20 libraries from around the country participating in the Beyond Access-Save the Children program.
Since attending training provided by Save the Children in May, librarians have made a number of changes. First, they have been reaching out to parents of young children to bring them into the library. More than 70 new children have registered at the library as a result of this effort. Appealing to children required a rethinking of their space as well. The library had big table in the center of their room that limited movement and flexibility. Staff moved it to the side, opening up more space for more varied usage. They have a mat they put on the floor for children’s reading and art activities. They arranged children’s books by level, with covers out to replace the old packed spine-out shelves, thereby encouraging children to browse and explore.
Children making the library their own
Yesterday, the library brought together about 40 kids for a labeling activity, where they designed their own labels for items in the library and posted them, helping transform the library into a print-rich environment. This was followed by an interactive story read aloud.
Whereas earlier, the library received only students and adults, now they’re getting between 10 and 20 children visitors a day, providing new reading opportunities in a convenient location where this didn’t exist before. The village’s children are thrilled to have a friendly, safe space to spend time after school, and parents are comfortable sending them there on their own. If libraries across the country can replicate these easy, low-cost adjustments, there is much potential to expand the opportunities Bangladesh’s children have to develop reading skills.