x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Encouraging children to bury their head in a book

A recent study by a researcher at the Dubai School of Government, found that 31 per cent of boys and 17.3 per cent of girls had never checked out a book.

ABU DHABI // In a side room, away from the book fair bustle, a group of academics spent part of last week grappling with a problem - how to get young Emiratis to read more. Too many leave secondary school with sub-standard Arabic language skills, while some reach university without ever having read a novel. Last year, students at UAE University took a pilot Arabic exam modelled on the English exam they currently sit before university. Not one got the top score.

"We have a problem," said Dr Hazem Rashed, an associate professor at Emirates College for Advanced Education. "We should get our sons and daughters to love reading - either in the primary or the secondary stage." A recent study in Ras al Khaimah by Dr Natasha Ridge, a researcher at the Dubai School of Government, found that students barely used the school library - 31 per cent of boys, and 17.3 per cent of girls, had never checked out a book. And while almost half - 45 per cent - of girls visited the library four or more times a year, only one in five boys did.

Teachers say they struggle to get their students motivated to read. "To them it's not a pleasure thing to do, they view it as a schoolwork," said Sara al Suwaidi, an Emirati teacher at the Dhabiania Model School in Abu Dhabi. "At my school, they try to do lots of things to make reading a habit, but I don't think we have succeeded." The problem was rooted in Emirati culture, she said. "We are not really readers. We are more into rote learning and reciting things but not into going and learning for ourselves."

Part of the problem was the weakness of the curriculum: she left her state high school having never read a novel. "I started reading at the university level and now reading is my first hobby." Another issue was that parents did not do enough to encourage their children to read. They were probably raised in a non-reading culture themselves, so it is "difficult to make them value reading when they themselves do not know the value", she said.

Dr Rashed agreed that the school curriculum was a problem. "It should be revised to choose more attractive topics; to choose more suitable reading passages for students; to focus on higher thinking skills while reading," he said. Dr Latifa al Najja, an associate professor of Arabic language and literature at UAE University, complained that the current curriculum was too limited. Reading assignments are limited to short stories and a selection of pre-Islamic and modern poems, she said. More literature on the curriculum "is very important not only for their education but also for their personal development".

"Literature is the strongest tool in any education system - it can help students to expand their vision, to explore themselves and others, to appreciate beauty and to be more mature and reasonable." She added that a revamped curriculum should include local, pan-Arab and international texts. "I'm sure that if students get the chance to read more novels, short stories and poems, and read it in the right way they will definitely love reading.

"They will be lifelong readers and they will learn by themselves much more than we teach them." As it is, Dr Najja said, state school pupils often start university with weak Arabic language skills and poor reading comprehension. "Schools don't teach them how to go beyond the literary meaning,' she said. "They are not able to analyse the text or pose questions. They can not reach the embedded meaning or message. The one thing they are good at it is memorising."

@Email:klewis@thenational.ae