Founded in 2000, global non-profit organisation ‘Room to Read’ has brought the magic of reading to children in marginalised regions across the world. The organisation’s core belief is that by designing and providing reading materials and programmes, educational outcomes will significantly improve. They continue this mission here in Indonesia.

Working in 24 countries, since its founding ‘Room to Read’ has benefitted more than 39.5 million children worldwide. All with the objective of creating a world free of illiteracy and gender inequality, the organisation implements a range of programmes, including: library development and support, teacher and librarian training, girls’ education, and through their role as a nonprofit book publisher they create and distribute local language children’s books that help to foster both access to and a love for reading.

The organisation’s outreach and impact has been impressive, having published more than 4,500 original and adapted books in 55 local languages, distributing over 41 million books,  and training hundreds of thousands of teachers and librarians every year.

In a country as dispersed as Indonesia, with its 17,000 islands and 700 living languages, literacy remains a challenge — the World Bank estimates that one third of Indonesian children at the late primary school age are still not proficient in reading (2019). Certainly Indonesia will have its unique set of hurdles when it comes to education, but the education-focused non-profit seems to have mastered localisation of their initiatives, working closely with existing organisations in the country to implement their programmes, in particular, the ‘critical gaps’ that are found through research and study of certain areas.

Many of us will take reading, or indeed basic literacy, for granted — one of the most fundamental pillars of education. Yet, developing this most basic of skills requires some very important ingredients: the materials, the teacher and a conducive environment. Sadly, there are many schools in the country that still lack these ever-important building blocks. An education in reading, it turns out, requires thoughtful and deliberate preparation.

Room to Read found that a key factor in Indonesia’s poor reading habits is its systematic lack of reading materials, especially for early grade learners. Fewer than 7 percent of storybooks in Indonesia were suitable for children learning to read, representing a large gap that prevents children from engaging with books at an early age and inhibits their learning. Further to that, very few local schools in Indonesia have quality libraries. Even if these two factors are available, it is in vain if teachers and mentors are unsure of how to best present them to their students.

The organisation’s first project in Indonesia was in 2014, where they worked together with local writers, illustrators and publishers to develop much-needed storybooks. The work expanded further: they had to ensure these books all had a home. Room to Read established ‘model’ libraries, which demonstrates the best practices in curating quality books, creating child-friendly spaces, and implementing effective library management.

To complement this work, Room to Read also develops and conducts training for educators on effective reading activities, such as facilitating read-alouds, paired reading, and independent reading periods.

“Now children are active and brave when asked for their opinion in class… and are excited to come forward to talk about their favourite book confidently,” says Ibu Gita, a teacher from a school in East Nusa Tenggara who previously struggled to keep children motivated and engaged during reading lessons.

In 2017, working with Indonesia’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology (MoECRT), Room to Read developed an Indonesian version of their ‘Literacy Cloud’, a digital book platform. Through this widely-accessible Literacy Cloud, children, schools and teachers could access high-quality digital storybooks, as well as videos to guide teachers in conducting effective reading activities with storybooks. This was a particular significant learning tool during the Covid-19 pandemic, enabling remote access to reading materials when schools were closed.

To date, Room to Read has helped establish school libraries in 550 Indonesian primary schools, developed 127 titles in Bahasa Indonesia, trained over 34,000 teachers and benefitted more than 860,000 children since 2015.

What is particularly interesting to note is how holistic the approach to improving nationwide literacy must be to remain effective in the long term. Room to Read’s strategy doesn’t only tackle the problem at the student or school level, the organisation’s parallel initiative involves training Indonesian writers, illustrators and publishers on how to produce high-quality, age-appropriate books to fuel the growth of children’s book publishing in the country. These range from decodable stories for early-grade learners, colourful picture books, non-fiction books, as well as chapter books for older students.

A great example has been their collaboration with Ashoka, developing a storybook series called ‘Becoming a Changemaker’, created to inspire children to be problem-solvers and be agents of positive change through real stories of people in indonesia. The 12-book series was so successful that one book, ‘The Village Illuminator’, was made into a short film and has been selected for the Science Film Festival.

By growing the local book publishing sector, this addresses a sustainable solution to the availability of reading materials across the country for years to come. As such, Room to Read was one of the only NGOs invited by the Indonesian government to help inform nationwide school library and book publishing standards.

The results speak for themselves: children around the world in a Room to Read programme read two to three times faster in comparison to their peers in non-Room to Read schools, and with 87% improved comprehension. Yet, here in Indonesia, the work has just begun, as the organisation’s big vision is to establish libraries in all 144,000 government primary schools across the country, together with MoERCT, to foster an everlasting love of reading among the 25 million primary school children.

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Edward Speirs

Edward Speirs

Edward, or Eddy as he prefers to be called, is the Head of Publishing of the NOW! Magazine, and the host of the NOW! Bali Podcast. He enjoys photography, rural travel and loves that his work introduces him to people from all walks of life.