56 percent of Kosovo children under five do not have a single book at home. Bringing books closer to children is not rocket science–it requires some money and organization, but most of all it requires the willingness to do something good for the future of the country.
Every year on children’s day, the main square in Prishtina is filled will kids participating in activities organized for them by the municipality. Reading is one of those activities. In tents sprawled in the square, adults read to children throughout the day.
This year UNICEF organized a book-drive to collect used books for children who did not have any at home. Their information campaign exposed a shocking fact: “56 percent of children under five in Kosovo do not have a single children’s book at home.”
This statistic accounts for more than 80,000 kids.
In 2013 and 2014 UNICEF and the Statistics Agency conducted a survey about the situation of children and women. The results of the survey revealed that only 32 percent of children under five have three or more books at home, and that only 10 percent have more than 10 books.
The same survey went on to explain that during the first three to four years of a child’s life rapid brain development takes place. During this period of development, “[the] presence of books is important for later school performance.” The survey also stated that “the quality of home care is a major determinant of the child’s development during this period. In this context, engaging adults in activities with children, presence of books in the home for the child, and the conditions of care are important indicators of quality of home care.”
According to an EU Report on Literacy from 2012, children growing up in homes with more books develop better reading skills, regardless of their social background. What this means is that in order to give children an equal opportunity to succeed later in life, placing books in their homes is imperative, but in an economically disadvantaged country like Kosovo, creating equal opportunity has proven to be a challenge.
How does this compare to children in other countries?
In 2014, UNICEF conducted the same survey in Serbia. The results of the survey concluded that over 72 percent of children under five have more than three books at home, and over 55 percent have 10 or more books at home.
While such data is hard to find for more developed countries with higher education standards, other data can be indicative. In Finland for example, every citizen, including children, borrows more than 12 books per year from the library. By all standards this is a lot, and especially when compared to Kosovo where there are few, poorly supplied, libraries which have low circulation. Very few children in the critical age range – if any at all – borrow books.
Having books at home is not enough, however. Adults must read to children or engage in other activities related to reading and learning. The UNICEF survey measured these activities too. The list of activities they measured went beyond books: “reading books or looking at picture books, telling stories, singing songs, taking children outside the home, compound or yard, playing with children, and spending time with children naming, counting, or drawing things.”
In Kosovo, only 66 percent of children under five had their caretaker engaged in four or more activities that promote learning and school readiness. In Serbia, this percentage is as high as 96.
This has huge implications for policy. How can we address the education of children who are poor, with few or no books at home and with adults who are not engaged in learning activities? There are different programs that have worked well in other countries, which engage parents and children to promote reading and learning.
However, the very first step that must be taken is to bring books closer to the children who have few or none. This is easy: the government should put some money aside, find donors to top it up, get publishers to make good offers and buy a few million books. The Ministry of Education in Kosovo does this for school books anyway, so the path is already paved.
The second step is to put those books in libraries and in children’s homes, meanwhile using this process to promote libraries and reading. Train librarians to organize reading groups. Train public sector workers (doctors, nurses, teachers) to promote reading with the parents and the children in the community where they serve.
This is not rocket science. It requires some money and organization. But primarily it requires only the willingness to do something good for the future of the country. It also stands so much in opposition to all the fancy measures that the Ministry of Education does take to address access to – and quality of – education in Kosovo. From complicated experimental cutting edge curricula, to the digitalization of learning content, to training teachers to use technology (which they do not actually have in the schools where they work). Neither of these fancy measures address, as easily nor as efficiently nor as cheaply, the problem of functional illiteracy that Kosovo children have.
There remains a disconnect between what Kosovo needs and what its institutions provide. But there is an urgency to make this disconnect disappear when it comes to literacy. The under five year olds of today will enter the job market and become voters in three or four election cycles. They could bring the change that Kosovo needs in social and economic and political development. But they won’t unless we address their literacy needs today.