Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

The following article has been published with an accompanying photo essay: click to read In School, But Are They Learning?

Today, one in three Pakistanis over the age of 10 are unable to read and write a paragraph in any language with understanding.
— Pakistan National Education Policy Framework, 2018

While Pakistan has historically been a society rich in literature and literary life,1 this is no longer the case. The number of quality books written in Pakistan and public interest in reading have undeniably declined.

In 2014, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) undertook a project to better understand the reading culture in Pakistan and identify the factors resulting in its decline. I designed and managed the study, and Management Systems International (MSI) executed it. This research resulted in a telling finding: among all age groups, primary-grade children are the most likely to read for pleasure, above and beyond what is required for education and religious purposes.

In this article, I provide evidence on the decline in reading for pleasure and offer some recommendations for improvement. How is it, I ask, that students, who begin their lives with an interest in reading, begin to lose it in their later primary school years? Using the results of the MSI research, I explore the various factors that affect the reading environment for children. I summarize the findings of the MSI project to provide a portrait of the educational environment of Pakistan and the barriers young readers confront, and identify how policymakers might reinforce primary-grade students’ interest in reading.

Literacy and reading in Pakistan

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is the world’s fifth most populous country, with more than 200 million people of whom 64 per cent are under the age of 30. According to the World Bank, Pakistan’s per capita GDP (PPP)2 in 2019 was $4,691 USD. In South Asia, this places it higher than Nepal, almost equal to Bangladesh and lower than India and Sri Lanka.3

Pakistan is a land of 73 different languages and dialects, with Urdu as its national language and predominant language of instruction in schools. Urdu, which emerged as a distinct language during the time of Muslim conquest in the 12th century, is an amalgam of different dialects and languages (mainly Persian and Arabic) that the invaders brought to India. Even before independence in 1947, much Urdu literature was being written outside what is now Pakistan, especially in the traditional Urdu centres of Delhi and Lucknow. Although it is the national language, fewer than 10 per cent of Pakistanis speak Urdu as their first language. Punjabi (about 40 per cent) is the most common first language, and as in India, English is a “co-national language.”

In the 19th century, literacy was considered the primary agent of social change, and this emphasis on literacy gave reading a prominent place in the culture.4 In the context of Pakistan’s movement for independence, Allama Muhammad Iqbal and other revolutionary poets played a significant role in the literate and even illiterate communities. Iqbal, whose poetry is among the most respected Urdu writing in the 20th century, was a strong proponent of the political and spiritual revival of Islamic civilization across the world and specifically in India, where he was one of the most prominent leaders of the All-India Muslim League. He worked closely with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founding leader and first Governor General of the nascent state of Pakistan after its separation from India. Known as “the Thinker of Pakistan” and “Poet of the East,” he is officially recognized as the national poet of Pakistan. The anniversary of his birth is a holiday in Pakistan.

Once independence was achieved, the country became fragmented. Political instability – due in part to multiple mother tongues – led to a decline in both oral and written literature. Many researchers, such as Myron Weiner and Ali Banuazizi, trace the decline in reading culture to these conflicts.5 Fifty years ago, children would borrow books from “anna libraries” in their village at the trivial cost of one anna6 per day. However, the robust network of public libraries across the country has been steadily declining.7

As a predominantly Islamic country, Pakistan inherited a religion-based duty to read. The very first word Allah speaks in the Holy Qur’an is “read.” Elsewhere (39:9), the Qur’an proclaims the superiority of those who read, noting “Are they ever equal, those who know and those who do not know?” The view that reading is a religious duty is embedded in the country’s culture; yet since independence, many have discarded this teaching.

While adult literacy rates in Pakistan increased dramatically over the 50 years between independence and the early 2000s (from 16 per cent in 1951 to 54 per cent in 2004), those rates have stagnated in recent years, rising only four points to 58 per cent between 2004 and 2012.8 Today, more than one in three Pakistanis over the age of 10 cannot read a newspaper or write a simple letter in any language.9

According to the most recent national-level data from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), in 2018 only 56 per cent of children in Grade 5 (the final primary school grade) could read a short story from the Grade 2 curriculum in Urdu, Sindhi or Pashto.10 ASER, the largest citizen-led, household-based student learning assessment in Pakistan and India, assesses the ability of children to read and do basic arithmetic at a Grade 2 level. It is conducted in most rural areas, as well as some urban areas, of Pakistan, and aims to provide a reliable estimate of the schooling status of children aged 3 to 16 years to foster a nationwide conversation and follow-up actions on learning. By surveying in homes, ASER accesses children in all school types. ASER statistics are the most reliable available measures of literacy and numeracy in the two countries.

Results from the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) national study, commissioned by USAID/Pakistan in 2017, confirm the disappointing ASER findings. More scientific in nature than ASER, EGRA conducts school-based reading assessments among Grade 3 and 5 students in sampled schools in provinces where USAID has undertaken education programs.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.
How the MSI study was conducted

MSI used a number of methods to collect data for its study: a standard archival document review, focus group discussions, semistructured key informant interviews and a structured survey. The following questions served as prompts:

  • What are the common attitudes and beliefs about reading in Pakistan?11
  • What are the barriers to reading among different populations in Pakistan?
  • What are the most promising practices and opportunities to revitalize the reading culture?

The researchers conducted a total of 40 focus group discussions involving 393 participants (197 male, 196 female) in eight different urban and semiurban areas in the provinces of Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the territory of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. These 40 focus groups were divided into four age-based subgroups: eight groups of Grade 4 and 5 students (Primary School Group), 12 groups of Grade 10 and 11 students (Secondary School Group), 12 groups of recent university graduates (University Group) and eight groups of parents with children in primary school (Parent Group). The study team also conducted 23 individual and small-group semistructured interviews with provincial-level government education officials, education experts, writers, university lecturers, publishers, and researchers to gain insight into current reading practices and initiatives.

Given the small size of the sample and the self-reporting nature of the data, extrapolation from the study’s findings is limited. While balanced as to gender, the sample is considerably skewed toward urban, middle-class and educated Pakistanis. The sample was also not representative of the entire country since several territories were omitted.

What the study found
Poverty, lack of education and literacy:

The focus group participants generally recognized the importance of reading at all ages. They also recognized poverty to be the principal factor impacting access to reading materials.

Generally, in a society with high poverty rates, most families have competing needs. For many low-income families, immediate needs (food, shelter and clothing) are higher priorities than education (particularly for girls) and books. Moreover, in a country like Pakistan, where according to the Academy of Education Planning and Management more than five million primary school children were not in school in 2018, inculcating reading habits among children remains especially difficult and time-consuming.

Among the participants in the research, who we know are on average considerably better educated than a random sample, approximately half reported that their mothers were functionally literate, while close to four out of five reported that their fathers were functionally literate (figure 1). There were statistically small but nonetheless revealing differences between the ways males and females responded to the survey. Participants acknowledged that restrictions related to mobility for girls and mothers as a result of traditional gender attitudes constituted an additional obstacle to their accessing reading materials.

Difficulty in accessing books and other reading materials:

Participants obtained reading materials and books primarily through direct purchase, most commonly from stores selling discounted and used books. Around half of the secondary school students and university graduates reported obtaining reading materials at university and secondary school libraries (figure 2). Only 37 per cent of primary school students and 32 per cent of secondary school students reported having access to a school library. Moreover, since participants likely interpreted “school library” very loosely – a single shelf of books or a small cupboard kept under lock and key might have been considered a library – the real percentage is probably much lower.

Very few focus group respondents reported living within proximity of a library (figure 3), further reducing the opportunity to access reading materials. In Pakistan, whatever language is spoken at home, Urdu is the second language as well as the predominant language of instruction. Yet it was noted that children’s story books are largely unavailable in Urdu in the stores, while those available are in English and often too expensive.

According to the data, the most common reading materials were the Holy Qur’an and newspapers. While many readers reported reading materials at home beyond textbooks, further probing revealed that these texts were most often religious books. The university students reported greater access to nonreligious materials at home like magazines, newspapers and books. With an exam-focused schooling model and limited options for reading nonreligious books at home, younger children are left with little opportunity to read for entertainment.

Lack of perception that reading books for entertainment, knowledge and personal development is valuable to society and the individual:

While the results do show an interest in reading for entertainment among primary-grade students, the trajectory as they age was very much downwards (figure 4). When asked why they do not read for entertainment, older students most commonly cited lack of time: the focus on tests and exams in Pakistani schools leaves little time for reading beyond textbooks. At the university level, a common expression was “we read enough,” referring to the materials required for coursework and professional training.

Overall, the effects of these attitudinal issues are pervasive. Respondents overwhelmingly cited a nonsupportive environment for reading beyond the minimum required for educational and professional advancement or religious duties. It starts with the example set by parents, who see no value in reading among those under their influence.

Effects of “screen culture” on reading:

In conducting the research, we encountered a tendency among education professionals and parents to blame “screen culture” (reliance on electronic devices) for undermining the reading culture in Pakistan. “Media (television) and internet are major barriers to reading,” a female college graduate from Punjab suggested. “If people want to know something it is more easily available on electronic media or the internet than in print.” Smartphones and computers offer easier access to information than books, magazines or newspapers. Digital technologies have positive and negative effects. Children who use digital technology only for games may get interested in reading if provided with free or affordable reading materials that interest them. However, it is undeniable that digital technologies shorten attention spans.

Lack of official initiatives to revive the reading culture:

Government education officials and education experts were also interviewed. They could point to few ongoing or new reading initiatives by major donors or government bodies to address reading practices and underlying attitudes. While a few projects have included classroom or mobile library components, the large international donors generally focus on developing reading skills rather than addressing the value of reading. Only a handful of local initiatives were identified as aiming to foster a reading culture among schoolchildren.

What can be done

The findings from this study highlight the importance of establishing a more supportive environment for reading at school, at home and in the community. This will require, in particular:

Establishing new libraries: The government of Pakistan must allocate funds for establishing new public libraries and for upgrading and renovating existing public and university libraries. Online catalogues should be available.

Publishing affordable books and reading materials: Tax breaks and/or subsidies should be provided to publishers to produce affordable books and reading materials for children and youth in the languages taught in schools and colleges.

Capacity building of writers: The government of Pakistan, through its education department, should organize training and capacity building workshops for writers to help them write and publish quality books. This should begin at an early age, with teachers trained to develop a habit of writing in children from early grades.

Education system reforms: The overall education system needs to be reformed to place less emphasis on exams and more on what children and youth are learning. Reading should be an integral and routine part of school, college and university curricula.

Organizing reading forums and events for motivation and awareness: The government, publishers and schools should organize reading events. Writers should be recognized by the government and educational institutions, and serve as role models for children and aspiring young writers. Celebrities, drawing on favourite cartoon and film characters, should be engaged to support such campaigns.

Replication and upscaling of successful reading program models: Local governments should recognize successful local nongovernmental initiatives, and their example should be replicated.

Reviving the culture of renting books in communities: With the help of local government, following the example of anna libraries, community libraries need to be again established to lend books at very low rates, affordable to anyone in the community.

Embracing the electronic reading culture: The emergence of e-books and e-reading culture is inevitable. Access to the internet and to electronic devices is growing fast and becoming more affordable. E-book shops should be encouraged to make books easily available, especially in areas where people have easy access to the internet. Application of the Digital Pakistan Policy of 2017, developed by the Ministry of Information Technology, provides an opportunity for this initiative. It will require the government coordinating the efforts of the relevant departments. The COVID-19 pandemic adds urgency to making digital reading and digital libraries prominent in the society, and especially in educational institutions.

This article is part of a larger section on literacy in this issue of Inroads Journal. Click to read In South Asia, Literacy is Crucial. And don’t forget to view our accompanying photo essay: In School, But Are They Learning?

Sumbal Naveed is an educator and development practitioner and was formerly a private school teacher and administrator in Pakistan. In 2018, she was a research fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., where she completed her research on girls’ education in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This article reflects the author’s viewpoint and not necessarily that of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) or Management Systems International (MSI).

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