Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

EDUCATION-BRAZIL: Boosting the Reading Habit

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 7 2002 (IPS) - In a bid to foster the reading habit in Brazil, the Education Ministry has begun to distribute millions of books, including novels, short stories, poetry, plays and other works of literature, to fourth and fifth grade public school students.

The “Literature in My Home” Project launched in April will distribute 60.9 million books to 8.5 million students to encourage youngsters and their families to read.

A survey carried out last year by the Brazilian Chamber of Books (CBL) in conjunction with publishers’ associations and the paper industry found that in this South American country of 162 million, only 26 million people over the age of 14 – or 30 percent of that age group – said they had read at least one book in the past three months.

Although the absolute number of regular readers is greater than the 23.5 million found in France, a greater proportion of people in that country read frequently, because the population of France is just one-third of that of Brazil.

The survey also found that just over half of the regular readers in Brazil had actually purchased their books, while the rest read borrowed or donated copies.

The study estimated that 17 million people had bought six or more books in 2000. And when sales are up, it is simply because the same core pool of consumers is buying more books, Raul Vassermann, president of the CBL, told IPS.

Nevertheless, the Brazilian market is a promising one, to judge by the interest of foreign publishing houses in acquiring local companies. For instance, the Spanish firm Santillana, of the Prisa publishing group, absorbed the Brazilian publishing houses Moderna and Salamandra last year.

The CBL organised the 17th biennial book fair that ended Sunday in Sao Paulo, the country’s largest city. The 11-day fair drew 200,000 students and around 400,000 adult visitors, 35 percent more than in 2000.

Nearly 52 percent of this year’s visitors had never before been to the book fair, while women constituted 63 percent of all fair- goers.

But the success of this year’s edition of the fair was chalked up to the new installations and the 698 different activities offered, along with the participation of 109 local writers and 12 foreign authors.

Nearby public schools also took part in the initiative, with 200,000 students participating in special encounters with local and foreign writers.

However, the growth in the number of visitors to the fair did not conceal the fact that “Brazilians read very little when they do not have access to books,” said Vassermann.

Over the past year, a total of 299.4 million books were sold, or 1.75 books per person, 10 percent down from the previous year’s total sales, according to the CBL. But of the books sold, nearly 60 percent were textbooks or other learning material, mainly purchased by the government for distribution to low-income students in public schools.

Evaluations of scholastic achievement in Brazil reflect the population’s weak reading habits. Brazil ranked last in a new survey of the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds carried out in the principal industrialised countries by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which groups the world’s most developed nations.

In the Programme for International Student Assessment survey carried out in 2000, Brazil ranked last of 32 participating countries, which included the nations of Europe and the United States, Mexico, China, South Korea and New Zealand.

Brazil’s 15-year-olds showed the greatest difficulties in reading comprehension, behind Mexico’s adolescents, and far below those of Europe.

According to Vassermann, such results are “shameful,” and are largely the consequence of two factors: a dearth of bookstores and public libraries, which limits the population’s access to books.

National assessment programmes that the Ministry of Education recently began to implement have also revealed a high level of functional illiteracy and limited reading comprehension among high school graduates.

Only 26 percent of literate Brazilians can actually read and write well, concluded a study conducted in Brazil by two non- governmental organisations, Educational Action and the Paulo Montenegro Institute.

Such indicators alarmed the administration of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso at a time when knowledge is becoming an ever-important factor in economic development, leading the government to design the “Literature in My Home” Project.

Vassermann, however, said a broader policy was needed to foster reading in Brazil, one that he said should be carried out by a multi-ministerial commission.

He also called for the creation of more public libraries, which he said were indispensable because they are “more democratic,” and provide access to Brazilians who are not in school.

In addition, if the government purchases books for libraries and schools on a bigger scale, the larger print runs drive down prices, thus enabling more people to afford books, he added.

Books are expensive in Brazil, where print runs tend to be limited to between 2,000 and 3,000 copies. That makes them only affordable to the highest-income sectors – another consequence of the enormous gap between the rich and poor in Latin America’s giant.

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