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Arab World Turns Page on Literacy
A young child sits in a classroom in Syria earlier this year. (Khudr Al-Issa/UNICEF)

Arab World Turns Page on Literacy

Despite great headway since independence from colonial powers, there remains room for improvement

A recently released report by the Majlis Research Center, the research branch of the Iranian Parliament, indicates that nine million people in Iran suffer from absolute illiteracy. The Arab world has similar challenges.

In 2015, the United Arab Emirates launched the “Arab Reading Challenge,” an initiative to establish a culture of reading in response to a famous study in 2011 by the Arab Thought Foundation claiming that an Arab child spends six minutes a year reading, compared with 12,000 minutes in the West.

Furthermore, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) has called on member states to focus more on books and reading.

Despite the heightened concern, statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) indicate that the adult literacy rate (people 15 and older) in Arab states is around 75 percent, 11 points below the world average of 86%. The World Bank is slightly more generous, pegging the literacy rate in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) at 80%.

The Arab Reading Index of 2016 revealed that Arabs read an average of 35 hours and 16 books a year.

According to Shelly Culbertson, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, the numbers need to be looked at carefully, in a relative and retrospective way.

“In the 1970s, the adult literacy rate in the MENA region was around 45%; today it is 80%,” she explained to The Media Line.

In most MENA countries before independence from colonial powers, European rulers restricted access to formal education to children of European settlers and a minimal number of locals. Following independence, which occurred between the 1920s and the 1970s, most MENA countries set up new state-run education systems.

This is reflected in UNESCO’s elderly literacy rate (65 years and older), where the global average is 78%, compared to the region’s 38%.

“The older generation wasn’t properly educated, especially women and the rural population. The youth in the region are highly literate,” Cheryl Benard, director of ARCH (Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage) International, told The Media Line.

Indeed, when one looks at UNESCO’s literacy rate for young adults (population 15-24 years old), the discrepancy is greatly reduced: in the Arab states it is 87%, compared to the global average of 91%.

However, despite the inauguration of once-absent education systems and subsequent advances, experts say there is still room for improvement.

“In North Africa, there hasn’t been sufficient reform. It’s universal but lousy. In Egypt, higher education is overcrowded, with… staff underpaid,” Dr. Stephen Heyneman, professor emeritus of international education policy at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University, told The Media Line.

Culbertson said: “Public schools are under-resourced and behind their private school counterparts. Because of this, private schooling is a lot more prevalent than in the western world.”

The regional silver lining in this regard is found in the petroleum exporting countries of the Gulf, which have a surplus of capital investment in education, said Heyneman.

According to the World Bank, the MENA region’s unique demographic changes and profile pose a significant challenge for education. The population of the region increased almost four-fold in 50 years, from 100 million in 1950 to approximately 380 million in 2000. No other region of the world has grown as rapidly.

Additionally, the region is experiencing an exceptional “youth bulge” that has placed pressure on the education system. The World Bank says nearly two-thirds of the people in the Middle East and North Africa are under the age of 30. It also estimates that the percentage of youth will continue to be higher than in other regions of the world for decades.

“One of the biggest challenges schools in the region have is pace. This huge population growth led to a system of double-shifted schools: One child goes in the morning, the other goes in the afternoon. But for kids to receive enough schooling, you have to add school days, [and] that doesn’t happen. Kids are getting two-thirds of school hours that they would receive elsewhere,” Culbertson said.

Also, the children in the region lack pre-school education. At roughly 28%, the region’s pre-school enrollment ratio is the third lowest in the world. It is not even two-thirds that of the world average (44%) and ahead of only sub-Saharan Africa (22%) and South Asia (18%).

ARCH International’s Benard said: “As far as I know, pre-school is not a thing in the Middle East across the board. It is partly a financial matter; if you have an extended family that can take care of the little kids, you’re not going to pay for pre-school, and therefore there won’t be an establishment of pre-school programs.”

Heyneman added: “The state’s role regarding education typically begins at age six. Therefore, pre-school is often seen as a luxury.”

Another issue is that Modern Standard Arabic is not the lingua franca of the Arab world, yet it is the language that children study in school to become literate.

“The issue with learning to read Arabic is that many children speak a vernacular which is not directly related to the text they have to learn,” Prof. Kathy Sylva, professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Oxford, told The Media Line.

’Aamiya, or spoken Arabic, has dozens of dialects that vary between and even within countries. Standard or classical Arabic – Fusha – is the language rooted in the Quran that is used in media, newspapers, literature and other formal settings, such as academia. It has significant differences with the various vernaculars, such as differing word order, vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.

Heyneman explained: “Suppose all the children in the [US] state of Illinois begin schooling in Latin. It is analogous to what children in Arabic-speaking countries are faced with.”

According to a hypothesis called Simple View of Reading (SVR) – which, according to Sylva, is the predominant view of how people read – reading is based on two interdependent processes: Decoding, a bottom-up process to recognize the symbols of the text itself, and language comprehension, a top-down process that connects the word to the reader’s knowledge.

Sylva said: “Oral language is essential and often overlooked, because the most obvious part of reading is encountering the text. All the phonics skills in the world will not make you a fluent reader if you don’t have the language comprehension. You can’t read the word ‘pineapple’ if you don’t know what a pineapple is.”

Therefore, she said, a discrepancy between one’s conversational language and textual language is an added difficulty, highlighting the importance of parental involvement in implementing a culture of reading at home.

Despite a lack of enrollment in early childhood education, families in the MENA region seemingly don’t begin a “culture of reading” at home.

“Parents in Western culture will sit down and read with their children. That doesn’t happen here [in the Middle East],” Shelley Lawson, an English instructor at the UAE-based Higher Colleges of Technology, told The Media Line. “They consider it an academic activity rather than a recreational one. If anything, there is a culture of storytelling, but they need to learn more about how to read at home; that’s where it starts.”

Regional governments often emphasize the importance of education, yet despite a page turned, the book is still far from being finished.

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