Op Ed Opinion:Thai education

Why Thais Don’t Read Books

Peter J. Foley

By Peter J. Foley       August 2011

UNESCO’s  selection of Bangkok to be the Book Capital of the World for 2013 begs the question: why?

The Bangkok Post published an article on February 2, 2011 citing the reading rate surveys of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT).  The 2010 survey showed that Thais on average read just five books a year as compared with Malaysians who read on average 40 books a year, Singaporeans 45 books a year, and Japanese 50 books a year.  The previous survey conducted in 2005 suggested Thais read only two books on average every year.  So , with it obvious that Thais are not a nation of readers , why would UNESCO choose Bangkok to be a Book Capital of the World?

Many educators feel the general education level of the average Thai is even more dire than statistics  like these and recent dismal test scores for school age children indicate.   Abundant, anecdotal evidence suggests that in the rural areas the rate of reading is less than a book a year for most Thais.     There is no doubt that Thailand will lose its economic footing unless the poor state of public education is turned around in order to create a highly  educated work force.  The master key to such a turn- around is to create Thailand as a nation of readers, critical readers, who are life- long learners.

There are many Thais and farangs who throw up their hands and say it is an impossible task to get Thais to be a nation of readers since it is not in the Thai tradition.  This is balderdash.  As the eminent historian David K. Wyatt points out, Thailand has a rich bibliophilic tradition.  Wyatt relates that in some parts of Thailand in the 1890’s the male literacy rates were “considerably in excess of the literacy rates in Europe or America at the time.”  In Thailand’s history there were huge numbers of Buddhist temples that included library buildings.  These buildings housed Buddhist religious books, or in the case before printing, texts incised into palm leaves.  Males were taught to read and write in monasteries.

The point here is that Thailand enjoyed a rich intellectual tradition.  This tradition included a ready access to libraries by the male population.

It is no wonder , then, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration(BMA) lobbied hard to win UNESCO’s approval to designated Bangkok Book Capital of the World for 2013.  The BMA want to use the UNESCO award as a platform to  change Thailand from a nation of non book readers to a nation of book readers.  Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra will be leading this effort , concentrating on encouraging  reading among working-age residents. The deputy governor, Taya Teepsuwan, has already initiated a reading campaign encouraging passengers using the mass transit system to read while riding the buses and trains.

We should  begin this campaign  by asking why Thai’s don’t read books in this modern era. This is a question worthy of considerable research before moving forward.

There is much to be done if such a reading revolution is to take place among Thais, much to be done to recapture the intellectual tradition for a wider population in Thailand.  Presently, the tradition is largely restricted to the 18% of Thais who finish college.

Reading is something that becomes part of a nation’s culture.  It is a culture taught to children and encouraged as they grow up to the point that a person becomes a life- long reader, and , thus, a life- long learner.   I hope the decision makers who are charged with organizing a successful reading campaign will consider:

1.  Campaigns to turn off the T.V.  and , then , reading to  children and telling them stories.  Story telling was a cherished tradition in Thailand only 40 years ago.  It should be revived and coupled with reading stories as well as telling them;

2.  Making great books written in Thai available at very cheap rates or free to borrow on a massive scale in the rural areas of Thailand through mobile libraries or through community access to high speed internet with free e-book down loads;

3.  Special incentives for software game manufactures to distribute and sell games that teach reading skill and practical knowledge with tax disincentives for those selling mindless computer games;

4.  Intense focus in schools throughout the Kingdom of Thailand to promote reading , including, the hiring of specially trained reading teachers from elementary school through to Matiyom 6.  These reading teachers would in turn be empowered to train classroom teachers to create independent learning libraries  in each classroom.   At the very least there should be every effort made to hook up class rooms with high speed internet in order to access first class Thai reading material for every age group.

5. To accomplish these and many other goals, there is a need for solid research on what the actual situation is in terms of reading and reading materials .   For example, there is a dearth of information on lists of great books written in Thai which are available on an age appropriate level.   More research need to be conducted on what can change Thai attitudes toward reading books and what Thais would like to read.

Why don’t Thais read?   If Thais have access and they are encouraged from an early age, Thais will read.   A new Thai intellectual era will dawn.  Thailand will successfully  meet the challenges of the 21stcentury.



#1# Banjo
Submitted on 2011/08/26 at 8:32 pm

Your story was really ifnrmoatvie, thanks!


#2#David Meyer
Submitted on 2011/08/21 at 10:02 am

As a professional and certified teacher living and working in Thailand I feel you have correctly identified a huge problem facing educators. I would take it a step further and say the very way my students think has changed dramatically since I lived here in the 1970s. One huge arena – the use of proverbs to succinctly and sometimes humorously describe real life situations – has almost completely disappeared among the younger generation. For example a popular proverb back then was:


literally, to flee a tiger only to meet a crocodile. An English parallel would be “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” Both proverbs convey the concept of trying to escape danger, but encountering something equally or more perilous. More importantly, these proverbs use an economy of words, comparison thinking and mental imagery, none of which can be replaced by television or video games.

If the whole way Thais think (and kids back home in America, too, for that matter) has changed dramatically then to simply add books into their lives won’t necessarily enhance critical thinking and imagination. But it’s a start.

Fear not! Last semester I found a student with a thick and weighty English book on her desk. It was clearly beyond her reading level so I picked it up. This clever girl had carved out the interior so she could hide her mobile telephone inside. (Bringing cell phones to school is against school policy.) No, I didn’t report the student to the principal. I was just happy to see someone actually using a book in school!


Submitted on 2011/08/13 at 5:36 am


ดิฉันเห็นด้วยเป็นอย่างยิ่งว่าเด็กไทยอ่านหนังสือน้อยลงทุกที และส่วนใหญ่สนใจอ่านหนังสือแฟชั่นที่มีขายตามท้องตลาด ซึ่งมีรูปภาพสวยๆ มากกว่าตัวหนังสือเสียอีก
เมื่อพิจารณาแล้วพบว่าหลายหน่วยงานในไทยสนับสนุนการอ่านน้อยเหลือเกิน เช่น
1. บังคับให้นักเรียนอ่านหนังสือที่ไม่ชอบ และเป็นไปเพื่อการสอบ ซึ่งอาจทำให้เด็กบางคนเกลียดการอ่าน (แต่บางคนก็ชอบ และเป็นจุดเริ่มต้นในการอ่านเล่มอื่นๆ ต่อไป)
2. ห้องสมุดที่เมืองไทยมีไม่มากเท่าต่างประเทศ ส่วนใหญ่เป็นห้องสมุดของมหาวิทยาลัยต่างๆ หากเป็นห้องสมุดชุมชน ก็มีหนังสือน้อยเสียเหลือเกินสำหรับการค้นคว้าทำการบ้าน ส่วนห้องสมุดดีๆการค้นคว้าข้อมูลหรือการนั่งอ่านในห้องสมุดจำเป็นต้องเสียสตางค์หากไม่ได้เป็นสมาชิกของห้องสมุดนั้น
3. ตัวอาจารย์ผู้สอนในโรงเรียนเองบางคนก็เป็นผู้ที่ไม่ได้รักการอ่านหนังสือ แล้วเช่นนี้จะสอนนักเรียนให้อ่านหนังสือได้อย่างไร จริงๆ แล้วดิฉันเห็นว่าควรมีการฝึกครูให้รักการอ่านหนังสือด้วยซ้ำไป

เห็นด้วยอย่างยิ่งว่าหลายหน่วยงานภาครัฐและโรงเรียนควรมีนโยบายส่งเสริมการอ่านที่ทำได้จริงยิ่งกว่านี้ ไม่ใช่ส่งเสริมด้วยการจัด มหกรรมการอ่าน ซึ่งเป็นมหกรรมการลดราคาหนังสือประจำปีเท่านั้น กิจกรรมดีๆ มากมายที่จัดในแต่ละปี ควรมีการประชาสัมพันธ์ให้น่าสนใจมากกว่านี้ ส่วนภาคเอกชนโดยเฉพาะสำนักพิมพ์ (บางแห่ง) ควรช่วยอย่างจริงใจและไม่หวังผลกำไร จะช่วยทำให้เกิดการเปลี่ยนแปลงที่ดีขึ้นค่ะ



#4#Jesse Brandt

Submitted on 2011/07/28 at 9:20 pm

I got inspired from reading Dr. Htay’s comment about his early learning experience sans the modern educational tools available today. I was always a difficult student. My elementary schooling took place in one-room schools. The first of these was in rural Oregon, one teacher 23 students ranging from grades 1 to 10. In order to have a quorum to start a 1st grade class that year, myself and a fellow 5 year old from a neighboring farm were enrolled. There were a total of 4 of us in the class. When I was ready for the 4th grade, the school was split and we 4th, 5th and 6th graders were bused to another rural school 3 miles distant from our homes. From the 1st to the 3rd grade, I walked to school, rain or shine, through the back pasture and neighboring orchards. At the beginning of my 7th grade, all us rural hicks were bused into town aboard a big “Blue Bird” school bus to a major urban junion high school and dumped into a typical subject classroom consisting of 30 students -all strangers- and one teacher. It was, needless to say, an intimidating and impersonal approach to mass education. The tradition continued through high school and into college. My 1st year chemistry class in the public university had 300 students enrolled it. My third year psch class had 150 students in it. The point I’m trying to make here is that same one you are addressing. The macro educational environment is designed not as a student-centered learning experience but as a mass production factory. In junior high school I remember being called to general assemblies. Guest speakers were corporate engineers from the big automobile companies. They “challenged” the students to design model automobiles -not the mechanics but the shapes- and submit these for judging and, if yours happened to be sufficiently eye-catching, you got some cheap trinket as a reward, a pat on the back, and, maybe a few hundred bucks towards a college scholarship. Meanwhile the corporations got hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas for future models. So students’ imaginations were explointed for big business’ purposes…they made millions, but the ‘students’ learned nothing.
Forunately, I had a brilliant mother who loved to take her kids for walks in the woods and show and tell them about plants, animals, encourage them to turn over rocks in the creek, pick up crayfish and explain what they were all about. She insisted we collect leaves and bark and put them carefully on wax paper between sheets of cardboard and bind them up with strips of inner tubes. Later, we’d open these albums and examine the dried contents. Mother would point out the veins of leaves and shows us books that explained what kind of plants they were, how they breathed and lived. When I was older I was sent to summer YMCA camp. There, too, organization and discipline were practiced and creative actions and thinking were carefully controlled through courses in craftmanship. We’d be encouraged to whittle small boats out of softwoods to float on the pond. It must have been when I was in the 7th grade at one of the family “Y” camps that my mother volunteered that I should take a group of younger kids on short outings in the surrounding woods and streams for a couple of yours. Taking a cue from her, I led them into a nearby stream and had them turn over rocks to find bugs and crayfish and told them what I knew about the squirming finds. The adventure was a total success and I was asked to lead small groups of kids into the streams every year after that. Mother also had a penchant for making things in the kitchen and encouraging us kids to help her mix cookie dough, boil up berries for jam, prepare beans and peaches for putting in jars that we opened in the depths of winter and ate with great gusto.

The point I’m making that mother was a nurturer and a teacher. Later on, after I had dropped out of my university studies to visit and travel in Europe, I set myself educational goals such as visiting the Prado museum in Madrid, the British Museum in London and spent time picking apples in Danish orchards in grapes in French vineyards. When I returned home from thes educational adventures, I would update a world map fastened to my bedroom wall highligting my travels. As my web of places traveled to grew, my longing for more increased. I had left for Europe at the end of my second year of pre-medical studies. I returned several months later but with new goals for my formal education. Returning to academic life proved boring beyond my tolerance and by the end of the school year, I had applied to and been accepted into the Peace Corps. By September of that year (1963) I was ‘at post’ in rural Nepal sans university degree. But I had committed to life of continuing education. Completing a formal education, for the sake of getting a college degree, did happen eventually, but not until much later on in my life. So what is the lesson learned. I think it is that each individual’s learning experience is unique and deserves to be treated as such. Forcing kids into a mass education experience merely produces the results you, me and hosts of other educaters are now fighting against. In my career, I also taught formally in institutions. I was an Outward Bound Instructor in the US. I taught English to Chinese students in Taiwan and to Thai students in southern Thailand. I taught physical education in Taiwan and Nepal. I taught computer software to senior physicians in Turkmenistan and to pharmacists in Laos. I taught medical warehouse management skills to Afghan pharmacists. I am teacing Nepali students how to recycle waste into useful products. I am still teaching Lao medical personnel how to manage sensitive pharmaceutical products and properlty run supply chains that extend to primary health care centers.

The fact that I could do what I do today I trace back to the sensitiveness of a creative teaher (mother) at an early age who taught me, above everything else, the value of self-exploration and that to satisfy one’s natural curiousity was really what education is all about. Of course education has to be a guided experience. Sometimes the process is referred to as coaching or mentoring. Whatever it is, it should not feature authoritarianism as its glue.

Best wishes.



#5#Maliphone Virachith Abhay

Submitted on 2011/07/25 at 8:09 pm

Dear Peter,
Great initiative for education reform !
I recall my childhood when I loved games and activities. I liked flexibility and freedom of choice. I liked diversity in unity.
School should let a child choose what she/he wants to learn and start thinking about who she/he wants to be. The education should give a child informed choice so that she/he will learn with joy.
Can education reform accommodate all the needs of each one of the child? Yes!
I know it is a challenge but we-adult/parents must overcome !


#6#Dr. Thein Thein Htay

Submitted on 2011/07/22 at 10:10 pm

Congratulations! It has been a real thought-provoking thrust to reform the classroom’s teaching-learning behaviour, leading towards a condition in which students would have real understanding rather than knowing about what they learned. As you mentioned, thinking process and problem-solving capacity through knowledge management would be most critical in developing deep understanding by students. This can also be applied not only to the classroom at schools, but also very valid for other trainings at work as we are also facing with the same problem of just knowing the subject and understanding its essence and applying in problem-solving.

I have pennyworth idea at this point as I was thinking of my childhood experience of learning at school. The questions that came into my mind was what is the difference in the classroom situation of our generation and current generation. We had no calculators, no computers, no cellphones, not may electrical devices and so we had to use our brain of mind mathematics, we had to calculate manually, we had to use our brain for solving any problem, etc, which may lead to keep our brain working and alert. It doesn’t mean that all the modern electrical devices have to be taken away from students, but it could be useful if we can use modern teaching aids with some brain games or brainstorming exercises. As a very simple example, I used to play english hangman games while my nephew and nieces love to play cyber war and car racing on computer. When they were asked to do some mathematics, they will firstly find a calculator and I will quickly do mind calculation. The sole message I am trying to give here is to see this teaching-learning climate as part of social system and not just a problem at school.
More later and I wish you all success. Great Job!


#7#Brian Berry

Submitted on 2011/07/15 at 8:50 pm

Hello Peter, you have bitten off a big chunk! Congratulations. There is nothing like a big challenge to keep the heart beating!
I have seen Thai classrooms, enough to know that the system is ingrained deeply in all the players –administrators, teachers, students, families and communities.
Top-down cultural reform … hmmmm. My first thought is, find your Gautama, your Socrates, your Rumi, and get him or her — more than one if you can — in front of a classroom, stock it with hungry students, and film, film, film. First the example that touches, then the assault on the castle of policy.
I went to the websites and I saw Escuela Nueva and Ashoka and School for life. The differences are not in the pictures; what would convince, would be the question. My guess would be, first film, then workshops led by the teachers (accompanied by students) who have made this work.
Years ago I knew a couple who were both 1950′s graduates of Summerhill. They did wonderful work. They were highly influential and creative people, but they were still on the outside, even in the early 80′s. They had disciples but no policy makers in train, and no apparent toehold on educational authorities or practice in the Great Britain of the early ’80′s.
But teacher to teacher they were having an effect. I think the missing piece was community organization. To send your most persuasive and effective teachers to do community organization — that could make a difference.
And for the students: dialogues, journals, poems, dramatic performances, not grades and rankings. Really lighting the lamp inside each, that would be my thought.
I did student-centered learning in the inner city here for fifteen years. It worked; I can see the difference in the students. In the administrators, in my colleagues: not so much.
Better luck to you, Peter, and Godspeed.
Well, a few thoughts.

4 replies on “Why Thais Don’t Read Books”

Wyatt relates that in some parts of Thailand in the 1890’s the male literacy rates were “considerably in excess of the literacy rates in Europe or America at the time.”

In which book, Peter cited this statement, unbelievable!

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