As the world marks International Children’s Book Day on April 2, 60% of youngsters in the MENA region are illiterate or cannot read at grade level, according to UNICEF.
This brings problematic consequences in many areas, including academic success.
“Reading may be the single most effective strategy for children to remain engaged with learning. It is particularly important for younger children who just started to read at school, to ensure they don’t lose their freshly acquired reading skills,” UNICEF says on its website.
While many countries in the region have created initiatives to improve literacy and encourage reading, the United Arab Emirates arguably leads the Arab world in encouraging children to hit the books.
In 2009, the UAE was believed to have only two or three children’s book authors. While there are no official figures, their number has increased at least tenfold.
“As a mum, I noticed there weren’t enough children’s books, specifically about the UAE,” Maitha Al Khayat, a renowned Emirati children’s book author and illustrator, told The Media Line in 2019. The Arabic children’s books available “were more text than illustration, the quality of the paper and illustrations also were not as good.”
Reading for pleasure is less common in the UAE and other parts of the Arab world because books are a relatively recent cultural phenomenon.
“The concept of reading for pleasure is foreign,” Shelley Lawson, an English language lecturer at Curtin University in Dubai who has written about the lack of children’s book authors in the UAE, told The Media Line around the same time.
Stories were passed on through re-telling rather than being written down. In addition, written Arabic is very different from spoken Arabic, with a different lexicon of words.
And so, the UAE has instituted various initiatives, such as making March the “Month of Reading” and establishing awards to reward excellence in written works.
The recipients of the annual Etisalat Awards for Arabic Children’s Literature, for example, share 1.2 million UAE dirhams (close to $330,000).
“Childrenʹs books have been booming in the Arabic world since around 2012,” Lebanese author Nabiha Mheidly, the founder of Al-Hadaek, the first publishing company in the region that exclusively prints books for Arab youth, told the German outlet Qantara at the 2018 Arabic Childrenʹs Literature Festival in Munich.
Children’s reading ability, however, has been impacted by the novel coronavirus.
Kids in the region have had to switch to remote learning, which has shaped their literacy skills. According to UNICEF, around 40% of children in the MENA area have been unable to participate in online school due to various challenges, such as no access to the internet.
For some students who were able to attend, online school has still bolstered reading ability.
Lawson’s five-year-old daughter, who has just starting to read, has experienced the changes firsthand.
“Due to the pandemic, the school has been unable to provide reading books to take home, because these would potentially spread the virus. In place of this, the school offers the opportunity to read books online. Although this might seem like a poor replacement for a physical book, it does have some advantages,” Lawson told The Media Line.
“Children can listen to stories being read before attempting to read by themselves. Also, the website used by my daughter’s school awards readers points for each book which can be commented on at school. This provides an added incentive to keep reading.”
However, not everyone in the region has had a positive experience with reading online.
In Israel, where students have had approximately two months of in-person school, poorer children have been hit the hardest.
Prof. Tami Katzir, Dr. Shelley Shaul and Dr. Orly Lipka at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Brain and Learning Disabilities at the University of Haifa performed a study on how reading skills were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A total of 2,228 second-graders from 34 Israeli schools were tested on their literacy competence and understanding of the material in January 2020, and 765 students from 20 of the same schools were re-tested 12 months later, along with the collection of such personal characteristics as the student’s socioeconomic status and religious level.
The researchers observed what is known as the “Mathew Effect” in both religious and secular students, where richer students did not fall behind during the pandemic while less-well-off students did.
“Even before the pandemic in Israel there are big gaps between children … but a year into the pandemic the gaps between rich and poor students double. It basically means that low-income families probably had less access to the internet and less available parents,” Katzir, a literacy expert, told The Media Line. “I have to say: It’s a very dramatic finding.”
While similar studies have been carried out in the US, this particular one in Israel is noteworthy because it is one of the largest, if not the largest, study of the discrepancy between rich and poor students.
“We have been trying to push even harder to get a lot more funds for these children. The chances of closing the wide gaps between rich and poor aren’t so good unless the government provides significant extra financial support,” Katzir said.
As elsewhere in the region and around the world, reading as a leisure activity has fallen with the advent of cellphones and other technologies.
“Children, for sure, are reading fewer books today than they were before, but also schools don’t demand it as much,” Katzir said.
Ilan Greenfield, CEO of Gefen Publishing House, agrees.
“I think overall there is definitely a decrease in the amount of time they spend on books. They have another gadget that fills their time,” he told The Media Line.
Still, he sees a promising future for his industry.
“I think overall, books are here to stay, because it is a very different experience holding a book rather than reading from a computer and hopefully it will stay that way,” Greenfield said.
Katzir said the distinction between reading hard copy and reading on screens is greater than the sensory experience.
“In studies that I have run, children who read from screens comprehend less than when they read the same text in physical form,” she said.