UAE schools promote reading amid warning of generational decline

Experts believe increased screen use during Covid-19 pandemic led to drop in literacy skills

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There has been an unprecedented decline in teenagers' maths, reading and science skills around the world in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, new rankings show.

But perhaps the most alarming finding from the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) report, is the decline in reading proficiency among 15-year-old pupils.

This was noticeable in the UAE, where pupils achieved an average score of 417, a drop of 14 points since the last Pisa report in 2018.

Experts believe reading skills declined during the Covid-19 pandemic as pupils spent more time on screens and devices and less time with books.

There is a generational decline in interest in reading
Rashmi Nandkeolyar

Rashmi Nandkeolyar, principal at Delhi Private School Dubai, warned that unless children are motivated or encouraged to read, their skills will continue to decline.

“When children are at home, they are not so cognitively engaged,” Ms Nandkeolyar said.

“Also, there might have been a lot of interest in playing games on tablets … that's why the rigour was not as good or pronounced as usual.”

However, Ms Nandkeolyar noted: “There is a generational decline in interest in reading over the years, while in maths and science, it isn't so.

“Maths and science are regarded as desirable subjects, while reading for pleasure is not a desirable activity by young people. Unless we push it, it will continue to decline.”

There is a plan, though.

In the past two years, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai's private education regulator, has been promoting reading across the curriculum.

And in May, Dubai's private schools were ranked sixth in the world for reading and literacy skills, showing progress is being made.

Ms Nandkeolyar said the deeper problem is that pupils often don't understand the subtleties of the literature.

She highlighted Delhi Private School Dubai's READ programme, which stands for Read with Ease And Delight. It is aimed at pupils from kindergarten to Grade 11 and encourages them to read books in groups throughout the year.

Parents are encouraged to read with younger children, which Ms Nandkeolyar considers to be crucial.

“Some parents don't want to buy or read books but we tell them how important it is to just have physical books lying around in the house,” she said. “It's not money wasted.”

Pisa is an international assessment of the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, maths, and science carried out every three years.

It found around 52 per cent of pupils in the UAE attained Level 2 or higher in reading, against the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 74 per cent.

“At a minimum, these students can identify the main idea in a text of moderate length, find information based on explicit, though sometimes complex criteria, and can reflect on the purpose and form of texts when explicitly directed to do so,” the 2022 Pisa report said.

In the UAE, five per cent of students scored a Level 5 or higher in reading, while the OECD average is seven per cent.

“These students can comprehend lengthy texts, deal with concepts that are abstract or counterintuitive, and establish distinctions between fact and opinion, based on implicit cues pertaining to the content or source of the information,” the report said.

Rebecca Gray, director of education at school provider Taaleem, said that the skills decline in the UAE was not as steep as the global drop.

“If we look back at 2018, the UAE’s Pisa scores were quite strong. Fast forward to 2022, and yes, there has been a slight decline," she said.

“Despite the upheavals brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, including the shift to online learning, our education systems and our students seem to have demonstrated remarkable adaptability and resilience.

“They're [globally] seeing declines in key areas like reading and mathematics that equate to almost a year's worth of learning lost. That's quite significant. In contrast, the decline in the UAE is relatively modest.”

Updated: December 07, 2023, 5:43 AM