Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 264 | Julio 2003



Nicaragua’s Future: Hooking Children on Books

The Libros para Niños (Books for Children) Foundation has been working for the past 10 years to encourage a love of books and reading among children and adolescents. In a talk to envío,its director describes that philosophy and its experiences and approaches first-hand.

Eduardo Báez

Libros para Niños is a nongovernmental organization that promotes reading with a very specific objective: we want children and the adults in their lives to “fall in love” with books and reading. One of our trademarks is that we always take the opportunity to read something at all activities we organize, with any kind of people. [On this occasion, Báez read “El eclipse” a short story by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso]

Working for access to written culture

We work to promote reading and develop readers. But we prefer to say that what we’re trying to do is to awaken a love for books and reading, because we believe this love is the most effective first step towards becoming true readers, people who read regularly and autonomously throughout our lives.

We promote reading not because “it’s nice to see children reading stories,” or because “they have so much fun when they read,” or because “it’s great to see them reading good things.” All of that is fine and true, and one of the daily rewards of our work is to see the expression on children’s faces when reading them a story or when they throw themselves into that world of infinite possibilities that can be found in children’s books. But it’s not enough. We work in this field because we believe it’s vitally important that our population, especially the poorest people, who are the majority here, have access to written culture.

I worked in adult education for years. I participated in the 1980 National Literacy Crusade as Managua’s departmental coordinator. Later, I spent six years in the Ministry of Education’s adult education program, first as national director of training, then as director of adult basic education. I became an educator without meaning to. The same thing happened to me that happened to so many others: in 1979, with the revolution, we realized that we had a lot of things to do and since we didn’t have time to learn how to do them, we simply jumped on the horse and learned to ride as we went. In 1993 I came across Libros para Niños, a foundation that was just getting started. They asked me to work with them as a consultant for six months and I’ve been with them ever since. I soon realized that I was still working on the same problem. The only difference was that in the 1980s, in adult education, I worked on the end result of the problem—illiterate adults—while in the Foundation I was working on the origins of the problem, encouraging a love of reading among children to help counter one of the factors that lead to illiteracy.

We live in a world where progress is made through written culture, but in a country where oral culture still prevails among a large part of our population. This oral culture is extremely rich and valuable, but in these times, access to written culture is the key to development—the development of each individual and of our society as a whole. We talk a lot about the conditions that create the economic, social and political marginalization that prevents so many of our compatriots from leading a better life, and in doing so, we often look only at the material conditions as determining factors. At Libros para Niños, however, we’re convinced that reading is a fundamental factor in human development.

“Autonomous” schools create economic barriers

It’s impossible to talk about development, democracy and civic participation when most people in our country don’t have access to written culture or the basic tools to access it. Many barriers prevent this access. One of the most obvious is that hundreds of thousands of school-age children can’t go to school. Each year, at least half a million children are excluded from basic education. And each year, this increases the number of illiterate people in our country.

The basic cause of this tragedy is economic, but the poverty of these children’s families is not the only aspect. The economic and educational policies implemented in Nicaragua over the past 13 years, which have prevented many children from going to school and staying in school, also play a huge part.

One of the most harmful policies that’s been implemented here is the so-called “school autonomy,” which in theory could be a very positive thing, giving communities new opportunities to participate in education, for example, by making the curriculum more flexible so that each community—teachers, children, parents and community leaders—could include material relevant to their immediate reality. But autonomy has been reduced to an administrative-financial tool. In practice, it has merely transferred the government’s constitutional responsibility to guarantee all children a free, obligatory education onto the backs of their parents. It’s true that parents should assume the task of educating our children along with the government, but when autonomy is crudely imposed on extremely poor communities or urban neighborhoods, the only thing that’s achieved is that the school doors are closed to many children.

In Nicaragua today, the “autonomous” schools—which include most public primary and secondary schools—practice autonomy only to charge fees for enrollment, grades, tests and other activities under the guise of “voluntary contributions.” And since a large share of these contributions go to the teachers to improve their miserable salaries, we find in many classrooms that teachers are more concerned about charging and finding better ways to press parents into paying than about giving a good class. This perverse policy turns poor teachers into merchants and sets them against equally poor parents. And it’s clear that school autonomy is one reason why the coverage of basic education has fallen year after year, after rising every year in the 1980s.

Many who finish school can’t read or write

Another problem is that a very large number of children drop out of school at all levels, for example without finishing primary school, or halfway through high school, because they have to work to help support their families. But many others go to school every day, move up through the grades, advancing in the system from primary school to high school and even to the university or a technical program.

Can we say that children who get to fourth grade, who finish primary school, who graduate from high school are really readers, however? Most are not. When you talk with secondary school teachers, the first thing they say is, “It seems like these kids never went to elementary school, they didn’t learn to read, they don’t understand what they read, they can’t express themselves in writing.” The complaint is heard at all levels. The third grade teacher says, “It’s shocking, it’s like the kids didn’t learn anything in first or second grade.” The fourth grade teacher blames the third grade teacher, the fifth grade teacher blames the fourth grade teacher, and so on. They all look back to conclude that the children didn’t learn to read, that they weren’t taught to read.

If you talk with university professors you find the same complaint, with an added twist: “It’s that they don’t like to read. We give them something to read and they screw up their faces.” We’ve seen the same aversion in the Foundation: in workshops with teachers at any level, if you say, “Now we’re going to read these 20 pages,” the workshop’s ruined! That’s always the unpleasant part of the workshop: reading. Many Nicaraguans have come to see it as a necessary evil, something you do because you have to, but that’s disagreeable nonetheless. Based on numerous studies, done not here in Nicaragua but in many other Latin America countries and even in more developed countries, I dare say that the education system and school as an institution have failed miserably in the area of developing readers.

School has confused reading with studying

The failure doesn’t lie in teaching reading and writing techniques. If we look at the history of school as an educational institution and of the teaching of reading and writing, we’ll see that in the end all the methods used in all school systems can teach a child to read and write. We’ve used any number of methods to teach reading and writing in Nicaragua’s primary schools—totally phonetic methods, syllabic methods; in the 1980s we used the phonetic-analytic-synthetic method; now we’re using more global whole-language methods, or mixes of those and phonetic methods. In the end, they all help children learn to read and write. The failure isn’t in the technical or mechanical part. Where school has failed is in making children into true readers.

One very important reason for this is that school has completely confused reading with studying. In school, children experience it as a form of studying. I haven’t seen a single classroom in all of Nicaragua, in either public or private schools, where children are allowed to really read. They’re given things to read merely so they can do tasks, and when the time comes for them to read works of literature it’s so they can outline them, answer questionnaires, make summaries. But I dare say I’ve never seen a child given a book of literature in school simply to read, and later asked nothing more than “did you like it or not, and why?” then be left to answer only if he or she wants to. A French educator said that as soon as children start school, teachers begin to “charge” them for reading. “Charging” means that each time children read something, especially a book of children’s literature or a classic of world literature, teachers can’t resist the temptation to ask them to name the main characters, identify the literary genre... The list of questions immediately turns reading into yet another assignment. And this isn’t reading. This is studying.

Of course, we read to study, we have to use reading as a tool. But learning is only one of the functions of reading, while school has limited the whole reading adventure to this single function, making it synonymous with studying. And since studying isn’t voluntary—no one asks children if they want to study, they’re obliged to go to school because we’re convinced it’s best for them—reading feels like another obligatory activity. When vacation comes around, if we want to see children’s faces fall, all we have to do is tell them to find a book and read it. They don’t like the idea because they immediately associate reading with studying, which is all they’ve known. In these ten years of trying to turn children into readers, it’s become clear to us that the problem isn’t that children don’t like to read, as parents and teachers often say. It’s that we never give them the chance to read without studying. And very few children indeed love to study.

Wonderful works of literature have been forced down the throats of high school students until they develop a phobia. It’s striking to talk with high school students about a book as appealing as the Popol Vuh and realize that while we wanted them to learn about our roots by reading it, the vast majority of young people hate it and have experienced reading it as a form of punishment. Rubén Darío? The same thing. Two years ago we went to a high school and found a case we wrote about, as a negative example, under the title, “Guaranteed recipe for killing any interest in Rubén Darío.” As an assignment, first-year high school students were given a wonderful story by Darío, followed by a twenty-point questionnaire. Some of the questions were simply incredible. For example, the second question asked them to “Number the stanzas.” One might suppose this would be followed by a related question, such as: “In what stanza does it say such and such a thing?” But nothing of the sort. So why number them? Do these exercises, or similar ones on anaphoras and synaloephas and other such things, make a reader? There’s no point to them. One of the very last questions was, “Did you like the story?” They told us that by the time they got to this question, they didn’t like it any more. The school system seems to want to prepare children and young people as though they were going to become literary critics or forensic analysts of language, as if being a reader meant identifying the kind of sentence or the verb or adjective in one line or another. Things such as these explain the school system’s failure to develop readers.

Reading is a vital tool for imagining change

This is a very serious failure, because access to written culture is basic to children’s development, and to the development of Nicaragua. We often speak of our country’s need for active, critical citizens who can participate and make decisions. And in recent years, we’ve increasingly spoken of the need for citizens who don’t only protest but can also make proposals. No protest without a proposal. All very well, but to propose solutions to our problems, to imagine ways out of our crises, we need to read. To be able to imagine, we have to be able to dream. And I’m convinced that reading is a vital fuel to the capacity to imagine and dream of a different Nicaragua. Reading opens the doors to the world’s knowledge, to the accumulated memory of humanity. Reading literary works is one of the best exercises for our minds. People in Nicaragua are becoming increasingly concerned about exercising and dieting to keep themselves in good physical shape. Our minds also need exercise to develop their enormous potential. And it’s been proven that reading literature is one of the best mental exercises. Each time we read a work of literature, our minds create mental images and form new connections among our cerebral circuits, which is essential to developing vital mental skills. Reading is fundamental to reaching our full human potential and becoming creative citizens able to imagine that our lives and the life of our community and our country might be different.

In Libros para Niños we’re working to create a place where children can have an agreeable, free, informal, non-academic encounter with the world of books and reading, where they can find books without being “charged” for them. All they have to do is walk in, grab a book, sit down however they want to, and do whatever they want with the book, except destroy it. They can just look at the pictures, read it from front to back or back to front, read parts of it, read the end first.... Freely. Because we’ve also been trained to be overly formal readers and are afraid to even touch books, as though they were something sacred. We’ve often had the experience of donating books to a school and visiting years later to hear the teacher tell us proudly, “They’re like new!” Of course they are, no one’s touched them! The teacher kept the kids from touching the books so they wouldn’t tear them or get them dirty. But when we buy a novel, read it and lend it to a friend and then to the neighbor, and they in turn lend it and it circulates around, do we get it back like new six months later? No, there’ll be a drop of spilled coffee, creased pages, something underlined. Books exist to be used and when they’re used, they inevitably deteriorate.

I was lucky to be born and grow up in a home where my mother and grandparents read. I grew up in the midst of books. And one thing that’s strongly impressed on my mind is the smell of books, the smell of a book’s pages. This sensation is so vital that each time I grab a new book, I smell it before buying it. Some smell inviting, others smell bad because of the paper and ink that’s been used. I say this because reading is an experience that involves all five of our senses. Touch. Touching a page of high quality paper is not the same as handling newsprint and that is not like feeling the smooth, shiny cover of a book. The sensations vary. It’s not the same to read a book full of big color pictures as one with small black and white pictures. All of our senses are involved when we read. At the Foundation we create places where children can touch books, handle them, feel them. We want them to have a full reading experience, an experience that will mark them for life.

The Foundation’s three-part proposal

One of our Foundation’s achievements is that in response to a problem as complex as the development of true readers in a country like Nicaragua, we’ve managed to create a very simple proposal that can be implemented by anyone, without any special training. Our proposal to parents, primary and secondary school teachers, educators and community activists is very simple. We propose three things. First, put children’s books within reach of children. Quite often, children only have access to school textbooks to practice reading, and since these books have a very specific function, we don’t consider them “true” books. Second, read books aloud to children. We place enormous importance on getting the adults in children’s lives to read stories and other things aloud to them. Third, let children read alone and as they wish. The more often we do these three things, the more effective the results will be.

To do these three simple things, we have to clear our minds of many ideas. The one we find most often in adults is that every time we see a child we feel we have to teach him or her something. We tend to see children as empty vessels we have to fill, to believe we have to teach them something all the time because they can’t learn for themselves. We have to resist this urge. The main problem we find in parents and teachers is this: if they read children a story, they want to ask questions. But you don’t have to ask them anything about the “knowledge” they gained from the story, the lessons they learned, the moral they should take from it. You can ask them what they thought of it; in fact, that you should do that, and respect their opinion, because being a reader means developing tastes. I might like García Márquez very much and other writers not so much. Reading has to do with tastes and thus educates people in tolerance. And reading never means swallowing a book whole. It should be a dialogue between the reader and the author and the relationship is always a dialectic one. What we hope to do is form critical readers who know how to interpret what they read.

We’ve included this proposal in three projects we’ve organized over the last ten years. For seven years we’ve been implementing the project “Give me something to read,” aimed at bringing preschool children, from three to six years of age, into contact with the world of books and reading, the world of the spoken and written word. A second project, the one that launched the Foundation ten years ago, is the “Library/Classroom,” a reading program for primary schools. The third is “Story Corners,” children’s reading rooms established with community participation and reading “facilitators.” We’ve planted several Story Corners around the country. They’re attractive and inviting, with an informal atmosphere, so kids can easily come and go, read books there and borrow books to take home. And we’re hoping they’ll serve as a model to influence the view of libraries currently held in Nicaragua, and more specifically of the children’s rooms in public libraries which unfortunately seem more like “book jails” than places that encourage reading. If I visit a friend or relative in jail, I have to ask the guard to call him and they’ll bring him out to spend half an hour with me. The same thing happens in the libraries: there’s a barrier that prevents me from getting to the books so I have to ask for them from a librarian, who is often grudging or grumpy, mainly because of their miserable salaries and not very rewarding work.

The hardest part is getting books

Books are expensive all over the world, particularly children’s books. We put a lot of energy into buying them, into raising funds so we can bring quality children’s books to all parts of the country. Over these ten years, we’ve distributed over 26,000 children’s books all over Nicaragua, free of charge. We’ve just signed an agreement with a French organization that will donate at least 10,000 books a year for the next 10 years, new ones from good publishers that we’ll select ourselves. The goal is to have a warehouse in Managua—we’re calling it a Book Bank—where we can keep 20,000-25,000 children’s books to deliver to schools and projects that work with children.

We have just two requirements, and we insist on them whenever we donate books. The adults in charge of the books must attend our workshops and promise not to use the books for didactic, school activities.

Debates in the field of children’s books

Our goal is for each child to find his or her own path to reading. But in the area of children’s books, as in any other area, there are debates. For example, people disagree about what children should read first: books about their immediate reality or books of world literature that introduce them to unknown, distant realities? It’s hard to say which should come first. In our work in preschools, we begin by encouraging teachers to take advantage of Nicaragua’s rich oral tradition. But we also believe it’s essential for children, especially those in the poorest sectors of society, to have access to universal culture. Are middle-class and wealthy children the only ones who should have access to the wonderful stories of universal literature, while poor children are forever condemned to read about their own limited reality, to reflect on their poverty? No, the cycle has to be broken somewhere. Children in a small, poor rural village like Santa María have as much right to hold a $20 book of world literature in their hands as children in a wealthy neighborhood like Las Colinas, whose parents have the money to buy it. We believe books on national topics are complementary to books on universal topics. As they say, “To reach the stars, you have to have your feet firmly planted on the ground.”
Another issue that’s debated has to do with the competition from television. I always advise people not to set books up to compete against television, because among children and adolescents books always lose. But if children begin to read when they’re very young, if they have access to books from the very start, books will eventually have a place in their lives. No studies on this issue have been done in Nicaragua, but in Mexico, for example, studies show that children who begin relating to books when they’re very young, who are read to, who see people read in their homes, typically spend three hours a day watching television and an hour reading by the age of 12 or 13, while those who haven’t had these experiences only watch television.

Another piece of advice we insist on: parents have to read to their children. One of the most special moments in the parent-child relationship is when you’re reading them a story. An extraordinary kind of affective communication occurs that marks both the child and us as parents. It’s a sensation with a smell, a color, a taste, and as children who have been read to grow, their unconscious mind will relive this marvelous sensation every time they read a book.

Community preschools: a positive experience

The project “Give me something to read” has been quite successful in the Community Preschools, which are cooperative preschools that have been organized at a community level in recent years. Very few people know about this very positive experience; too many things don’t work in Nicaragua and they are the ones that make the most noise. The Community Preschools work, and do so with the active participation of people in extremely poor communities. There’s a commonly held view that poor parents aren’t interested in their children’s education. But that’s a big lie; they’re more interested than anyone. The poorest families are precisely the ones that place the highest value on what education can do for their children.

Preschool education as an integral part of the national education system began to develop in Nicaragua in the 1980s, with the Sandinista revolution. Until then, there were no preschools except in a few private schools. In the 1990s, although primary education coverage has fallen, coverage at the preschool level has increased, even more than in the 1980s. This growth had nothing to do with the political will of the successive governments or their education policies. It was achieved by civil society with the support of international cooperation. The International Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified in Nicaragua in the early 1990s, thanks to the persistent efforts of national and international NGOs that work with children. Soon after that, the Child and Adolescent Code was drafted and passed into law, though it remains poorly understood by our society. These two important events focused attention on children, in a country like Nicaragua, which is mostly made up of children. Another important development in the 1990s was the return of multilateral organizations to the country, whose loans are often aimed at improving education, understood as an investment in economic development. The World Bank launched the “Aprende” (“Learn”) project, which has funded the expansion of community-based preschool education throughout the country. Until then, a few schools supported by the Communal Movement were the only experiences with community preschools.

Some current figures

The preschool enrollment rate increased from 12.4% to 27% between 1990 and 2001. This is the education sector where the enrollment rate has increased the most, with nothing similar happening during these years at the primary or secondary level. According to figures for 2002 from the Ministry of Education, 89,300 children are attending Community Preschools around the country. A smaller number, some 60,000 children, are attending private preschools or formal public preschools (under the ministry’s responsibility, financed by the state budget and operating in elementary schools). Community Preschools serve 53% of the total enrolled at that level. There are 3,869 Community Preschools operating all over Nicaragua, 69% of the total number of preschools in the country; while 69.7% of all teachers working in preschool education are community volunteer teachers. Although these teachers receive some money through the “Aprende” project, they are considered volunteers because this stipend amounts to no more than $13 a month and is often disbursed late. Some 90% of the teachers in the Community Preschools are women; 57% attended or graduated from high school, and another 22% completed all six years of primary school.

We in Libros para Niños were quick to understand the importance of encouraging reading and a love of books among the children in the Community Preschools. These schools are established in very poor communities, and the sooner this love is cultivated, the greater its impact on children’s lives. Although we believe that the ideal place to form readers is in the home, we are trying to overcome the limitations that poverty imposes on most homes in Nicaragua by bringing children’s literature to the Community Preschools.

Community Preschools are like a little three-legged stool, with one leg being the teachers, one the parents, and the third the leadership of each community—leaders of a local development project, religious leaders of any denomination, etc. Seeing how these preschools have developed, we’re convinced that when the World Bank project concludes, possibly as soon as next year, most of the Community Preschools will continue to operate even if the Nicaraguan government hasn’t fulfilled the commitment it signed with the World Bank to include part of the cost of preschool education in the state budget. The model has been developed and consolidated on these three little legs. The community is truly participating to make them work. And our whole population, including the rural population, has become more aware of the importance of preschool education. The Libros para Niños Foundation has been working with the Community Preschools for the past seven years, with the support of Save the Children Norway. This year we’re working with 345 in the Nueva Segovia region, another 50—mostly urban but some rural—in the municipality of Estelí, 28 in the eastern neighborhoods of Managua, all of those in Jinotepe, El Rosario and Santa Teresa in the department of Carazo and some in San Marcos and Diriamba. Since we began to work with the Community Preschools, we calculate that we’ve reached over 750 teachers and 12,000 children.

A great example of cooperation between state and civil society

In Ocotal, there’s a Commission to Support Community Preschools in Nueva Segovia. It’s a great example of inter-institutional coordination and cooperation between the state and civil society. Similar commissions operate in other places too, but the one in Ocotal is the best local effort of its kind I’ve seen. The commission members include representatives from the ministries of health, education and the family, the World Food Programme (WFP) and NGOs working with preschool age children, of which the Libros para Niños Foundation is one. The commission has remained in place through the different elections held over these seven years, which normally create such political polarization that they undermine any attempt to achieve unity. People never talk about divisive political issues, as the interests of the children always bring us together. The initiative is exemplary in the way it has gotten people to set aside their political passions. It also sets a good example because of the way we rotate the position of commission head each year, ignoring the frequently heard argument that reelection is the best way to guarantee that the lessons learned from experience won’t be forgotten.

The Commission has been able to overcome the fragmentation that is so often seen in the municipalities, where different groups approach a given sector of the community with different proposals, driving people crazy. Here we have one set of proposals and actions to go along with them. We work with the government institutions, we always have community leaders involved, we offer workshops to teachers and parents in rural communities. The parents sometimes walk hours to come to a workshop where we talk about nutrition, the stages in child development, immunizations, play, and where we read stories aloud and give them books to take home... Mothers are always in the majority at these workshops but many men concerned about the education of their children come too.

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