Making textbooks more appealing better than spending millions on a reading campaign
Why does Thailand have to launch campaigns to promote reading?
On average, Thais read only eight lines a year. Even in the capital, people read only five books a year.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is planning to open the Bangkok Library, Museum of Thai Books, Book and Reading Research Centre, and Museum of Thai Comics.
Will Bangkok's status as the world book capital for next year change anything? Will a love for reading suddenly arise because all these places spring up? Perhaps not.
Even textbooks need to be appealing. Without interesting presentation, no matter how good the contents are, the books are useless. No one is going to read them, particularly when it comes to textbooks - something generally considered the most boring of all.
A textbook's appeal is so low that students really have the habit of keeping their textbooks in their bag or school locker after classes.
The quality of reading materials is to blame. And quality is defined in several aspects, from contents to presentation.
Now, at all department stores, there is at least one shop dedicated to comic books. Nearly all communities are renting out comic books, and owners admit that comic books generate much more income than rental magazines.
Comic books are innovative and fun. They win many fans because of the characters and their actions. They are much more interesting than textbooks, particularly the ones available to Thai students, which are filled up with text.
If the Education Ministry really wants to enhance learning efficiency, it should consider changing the presentation of textbooks.
According to a report commissioned by Pico (Thailand), 70 per cent of study materials, mostly textbooks and exercise books available this year, are from a publisher's self-assurance category.
Key publishers include the trading organisations of the Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Educational Personnel and 16 private houses.
Interestingly, of the 671 study items for 2012, only about 30 per cent have been approved by the Education Ministry. The rest? They are the work of private publishers. Certainly, to win the deals, they don't think too much. They just follow the old styles and update the facts and figures when reprints are necessary.
Public and private publishers here are oblivious of what's happening in the rest of the world.
A third-grade history textbook in Singapore looks like a comic book, full of pictures and cartoon characters talking about the subject in an easy language. That simplifies the heavy content, which focuses on the Japanese occupation of Singapore during the Second World War. In one chapter, students are asked what Singapore, which surrendered to Japan, should have done.
Thai students also study about the time Siam lost land to Western imperial powers, but only from textbooks and without any questions posed that could ignite a sense of patriotism or involvement in national affairs. That hasn't changed for decades.
Thirty years ago, we were told to recite the heroic fight of King Naresuan the Great, entirely from a lengthy narrative. Now, students are doing the same thing. It would be more exciting for kids if the textbook shows the picture of his fighting on an elephant's back. From the picture, they can eye the costumes and his weapon.
A creative teacher could even have students demonstrate what the weapon could do. To stimulate their imagination, they can even be encouraged to design a better weapon for elephant-mounted fighting.
In a science textbook, young students see pictures of the sun and other stars in the solar system. With close-up photos of Mars or the Moon, some kids could be inspired to excel in physics with the dream of exploring more extraterrestrial stuff.
Thailand's textbooks, lined with words, are dull. In the Singaporean textbook, there are boxes showing a uniformed Japanese soldier negotiating with Singapore's representative over the surrender. Pages before that, there are pictures of fighter planes to describe Japan's bombing of the island.
It looks exciting even to someone who has read a lot of World War II books. I sincerely believe that if we had such textbooks, not only would students flip their pages more often after school but their parents would also be attracted.
Over time, the average lines Thais read would rise. Indeed, changing textbooks now is worth more than spending millions financing the nationwide reading-promotion campaign.