Indonesia has a reading problem. Despite a reported 95% adult literacy rate, most available evidence suggests that the ability of the average Indonesian adult to understand and make use of written information is shockingly low.
The latest PISA data (2015) reports that more than 86% of Indonesian 15 year olds read at PISA Level 2 or below – that is, they are unable to consistently perform Level 3 skills such as ‘locat[ing] and… recognis[ing] the relationship between several pieces of information’ in a text.  These skills are essential to secondary and tertiary education.
These low reading skill levels are consistent with past PISA results, and are further evidenced by the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills. As Lant Pritchett writes, this found that ‘…even the highly schooled in Indonesia are far behind global standards,’ with the average Jakartan with tertiary education having a lower literacy proficiency than average school-leavers across OECD countries. The Indonesian press lamented the results of the World’s Most Literate Nations report, which placed Indonesia 60th out of 61 countries using a combined measure of literacy and literate behaviour. 
Indonesia’s reading problem matters because literacy is vital for navigating daily life, accessing jobs and services, and participating in political processes, and also because of the sheer pleasure and enrichment that reading can bring.
Improving literacy across Indonesia also matters hugely because reading is arguably the learning tool par excellence, through which most other skills and knowledge are acquired. This means that the ‘friction’ of low levels of literacy proficiency will be felt at every stage of this huge and diverse country’s efforts to improve the quality of its education. Conversely, the gains to be made from improving literacy proficiency are enormous, and include increasing the effectiveness of existing learning opportunities and an unlocking of wider returns to education for individuals and for the nation. These benefits will last a lifetime.
The importance of literacy is only amplified by technological change. In our networked age, our reading ‘bandwidth’ is critical. Societies of skilled readers – those able to read, understand, and crucially, evaluate and filter information – will be able reap the benefits of online resources, while the less well equipped will flounder. As Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly has said, rapidly changing technology and societies cast us all in the role of ‘perpetual newbies’ who are continually having to learn and adapt to technological change. Readers, in other words, will inherit the earth.
This raises important questions for Indonesia. At current rates of improvement, it will take over a hundred years for Indonesia’s students to catch up to their average counterparts in OECD countries, let alone those in Singapore or other high performing nations. We can’t wait that long, and the ‘pivot to learning’ that must take place in Indonesia’s schools depends on reading. What can be done to help teachers and administrators to teach reading effectively, when they themselves are products of this low-performing educational culture? What programmes and pedagogies will facilitate effective change at a scale that will reach even a fraction of Indonesia’s three million registered teachers, and the many more working in low-cost or charitable schools in the private sector spread across this huge country?
I work for Yayasan Tunas Aksara, an Indonesian non-profit organisation working find answers to these questions, with a particular focus on Early Childhood literacy. We work through the Saya Suka Membaca [I Love Reading] programme to achieve the vision of “Children in poor communities across in Indonesia learning to love reading.” The programme partners with charities that provide free or low-cost preschool education in poor communities, helping their teachers to develop as skilled and caring teachers of reading. The average teacher in these preschools has an Indonesian high-school education, and has received little or no training to enable them to teach effectively. Our aim is to equip these ‘average’ teachers so that they are able to teach reading with good results. We do this through providing three key elements: teacher training and mentoring; a high-quality reading curriculum and resources; and culturally relevant reading books designed to support beginner readers and make reading fun.
One lesson we’ve learned is to keep things highly practical. Theory is limited to a few key principles, such as that kids don’t learn well when they’re scared, or that they can only retain a limited amount of new information at a time. The majority of training time is dedicated developing key classroom skills by peer-teaching lessons from the Saya Suka Membaca curriculum. For example, teachers learn how to hold a story book so children can see it, to read clearly and engagingly, and to ask questions that encourage engagement and understanding. They learn songs and actions for teaching letters and to teach skills such as how to hold a pencil. They practice using letter and syllable cards to help children learn to blend combinations of letters to make words – and much more beside.
We’ve also learnt that step-by-step lesson plans are essential to enable busy, under-resourced and under-trained teachers to teach reading well. Without a high level of detail in the curriculum key steps get missed or confusing extras added, and progress stalls. One reason for this is that some elements of our programme – such as teaching high-frequency letters first, or shifting from spelling words out to sounding them out in complete syllables – are not intuitive to many of the teachers we work with. We see their teaching skills develop as they work through the curriculum, and they become advocates for new methods as they see the impact of the programme in their own classrooms.
None of this will sound like rocket science to readers who grew up in highly literate families or who received a good quality education. But many of the elements sketched above – and even our emphasis on making sure that children understand what they read and enjoy reading – are entirely new to the teachers we support. They are desperate for training, and the excitement and gratitude that they express when they finally receive it is humbling.
But what about results? More than a thousand children were taught to read with Saya Suka Membaca last year. Our own test results are promising, especially for children from the poorest backgrounds who attend a full two years of preschool, but they’re still not as good as we’d like. We have a lot to learn, and we continue to explore ways to increase the effectiveness of the programme and use technology to scale and increase its impact.
What we do see is increased energy and purpose in classrooms where our programme is used. We see kids in some of the poorest communities of Jakarta coming into their classrooms, going straight to the book box, picking up books and starting to read. We’ve seen girls living in a rail-side slum not only learning to read, but re-entering school and being told by their teachers that they’re ‘the cleverest readers in the class.’
It’s a start. The transformation of education in Indonesia depends on children like these – and teachers like these – learning to love reading.
 This figure represents impressive progress from an estimated 9% in 1930 and 19% in 1950 (http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0000/000029/002930eo.pdf)
 http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/03/12/indonesia-second-least-literate-61-nations.html. See more about the report at http://www.ccsu.edu/wmln/
 In Indonesia, children generally start primary school aged six or seven, so preschool children range from about four to six years old.
Stuart Patience is a founding board member of Yayasan Tunas Aksara. Find out more at www.sayasukamembaca.org
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.