The news that more than 50 per cent of young children in the UAE do not read books did not surprise. Over recent decades, literacy levels in the region have not even approached where they should be, mostly because of a lack of educational resources.
Anyone with children, or with even a passing acquaintance with them, knows another reason: children today cannot be pried away from their gadgets. Our report yesterday about Sharjah schools enforcing a ban on mobile phones demonstrated the point. And today in the Business section, we report a survey showing that 65 per cent of pre-teens use the internet at least once a week. Just think how much time the average 12-year-old spends using a computer or a handheld device, compared to reading a plain old-fashioned book.
This has real consequences for cognitive development, but it's not the end of intelligent life as we know it. In the modern world, a person can learn in many different ways and using so many different media. Indeed, in terms of simple literacy, the digital revolution has great potential: it's basically guaranteed that most 5-year-olds will learn their ABCs, or alef ba for Arabic speakers, if that's what it takes to navigate to their favourite game website.
But reading is not only about stringing letters together. The discipline of sitting down with a good book helps to build a child's cognitive abilities, including memory and focus. This is a discipline that predates widespread literacy: knowledge in the early Arab tradition (or Old English or Native American, for that matter) was passed down by spoken word, which involved the memorisation of lengthy lines of poetry or religious texts. The memorisation of the Quran is a living - extraordinarily challenging - intellectual and religious calling.
So how do we combine this intellectual rigour with the age of terabyte data and ubiquitous digital devices? One answer is found if we go back to the original question about why children don't read more books: one reason is that so few are translated from English into Arabic. Two major UAE translation projects, Tarjem and Kalima, are a beginning, but far from enough. The same efforts need to be replicated across the internet.
More broadly, we need to rethink models of learning and uses of technology that engage children for more than five-second intervals. It would seem that adults have something more to learn as well.