DUBAI // Young people’s reading skills are deteriorating because of an addiction to technology, lack of reading material in homes and the absence of a literary tradition, academics say.
Many teachers in government schools say they struggle to find incentives to persuade their pupils to read. “Their excuse is they do not have the time,” said Asma Humaidan, an English teacher at the Al Dhait public school in Ras al Khaimah. “In my class of 60, only one girl reads for pleasure.”
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for 2007 found that 44 per cent of pupils in Dubai had fewer than 25 books in their home, and only 12 per cent owned more than 100 books. TIMSS reports every four years on the achievement levels of fourth and eighth grade pupils.
A 2008 UN survey found that the average Arab in the Middle East reads about four pages of literature a year. Americans read an average of 11 books a year and Britons an average of eight.
In the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results released in December 2010, Dubai ranked 42nd out of 65 countries in reading literacy. Pisa is a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-olds co-ordinated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
“Students’ performance in Dubai still needs considerable improvement to catch up,” Andreas Schleicher, the director of Pisa, said. “In particular, that one-third of the students do not reach the baseline level in reading literacy is worrying.”
Galal Abdul Rahman Saleh, a teacher at the Omar bin al Khattab Model School in Dubai, said reading was losing out to time spent on social networking sites and games consoles.
“Students have begun to lose interest in reading because of technology, so they are browsing rather than reading,” he said. “That is more interesting and interactive for them than some pages with words.”
Mr Saleh said the typical home lacked a culture of reading. “Most parents do not read to their children or encourage them to read,” he said. “This has a bearing on their academic performance because it enhances their knowledge and writing skills.”
Zeyna al Jabri, who owns Buzoor, a distribution house in Dubai that supplies Arabic titles to schools, said a love for reading must be instilled at an early age. “Give books to children like you would give them toys,” she said.
Another challenge was that Arab students accustomed to using colloquial speech found it hard to comprehend books written in classical Arabic, which caused them to lose interest, she said.
“Parents have to introduce them by reading to them right from the beginning so that they grasp the language in its pure form and develop a love for it,” she said.
The Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) is developing Learning Resource Centres for every public school, which will include Arabic and English magazines, books and multimedia resources.
And at the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in Al Gharbia, students are being encouraged to read on their long bus journeys to school. The project, called Reading to Go, which began in 2008, gives students reading material on topics including current affairs and history.
Alex McTaggart, who teaches English at HCT, says students associate reading with work. “We allow students to take ownership of the English language by asking them to take their local stories and tales and put them into English.
“This has been a great success, as local Emirati storytelling has new life breathed into it and can compete on a level with the external cultural influences of Hollywood and Bollywood.”
Some Emirati authors, such as Qais Sedki, are attempting to give these stories a modern twist through novels such as The Gold Ring, a manga-style book inspired by traditional folk tales that won Mr Sedki a Sheikh Zayed Book Award.
“The availability of content is a big issue, content that is close to the children’s environment,” he said. “If they don’t find something familiar and comfortable, it becomes an obstacle. Reading isn’t something a child naturally gravitates towards, so it needs to be developed.”
Mr Sedki says it was a big leap for young people to leave high school and go to college or university – where almost all courses are taught in English – when they do not even read Arabic texts during their formative years, because Bedouin culture is based on a tradition of oral storytelling.
At many colleges, as many as 90 per cent of students must take remedial English programmes to bring them up to the standards required for degree-level study.
Abrar Mikawi, a co-founder of the Arabic cultural club at Dubai Women’s College, said: “Our students haven’t even read Arabic books. They don’t see their parents reading and have no idea about Arabic culture, history or figures such as Ibn Battuta. They don’t read anything other than what they have to in their textbooks.”
Students at women’s college spread the message in schools
DUBAI // Dubai Women’s College will kick off its third year of Reading in Schools on Monday. The project teaches business and technology diploma students how to promote a culture of reading.
This year, more than 160 first-year students will receive training from bachelor of education students and then attempt to instil a love of reading in children aged 7 to 9.
Zadjia Zahi, who teaches English at the college, said Reading in Schools was a perfect example of community service.
“These students weren’t reading enough themselves; we wanted to show them how reading can become fun and in turn encourage them to read to their own children and family members,” she said.
Muna Ahmed is excited about the project, despite not being a big reader herself.
“I always thought reading was boring,” said the Dubai Women’s College first-year student. “We don’t have books at home and our parents don’t read to us. Our storytelling is passed down to us by people like our grandmothers, who tell us stories from memory.”
Maryam Ibrahim started reading only once she reached college, but now loves romance, horror and comedy titles. “I suddenly found all these books I loved,” she said. “I could choose anything I wanted. In school we only read enough to be able to answer the questions.”
Maryam, Muna and their classmate Maitha Khalfan say that had they read more as children their college studies would have been much easier.
“Our futures would be different,” Ms Khalfan said. “There was no concept of research. “Reading was purely functional for us.”