Better libraries and localised books will get kids reading, expert says

Judith Finnemore, managing consultant at Education Consulting and School Improvement, says there is an 'alarming' number of schools in Dubai where children are unable to read.

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DUBAI // Better-stocked public and school libraries, more localised textbooks and parental encouragement are among the measures that can be taken to encourage more children to read, an education expert says.

According to Judith Finnemore, a managing consultant at Education Consulting and School Improvement, there is an alarming number of schools in Dubai where children are unable to read.

“This has a knock-on effect because they cannot access textual material and are often, in my experience, those who seek alternatives to concentrating on their work,” she said.

She suggested promoting and having more books from children’s authors who live in the UAE.

“Reading doesn’t have to mean books because there are lots of devices that can be used, making material transportable,” said Ms Finnemore.

Reading should firstly be about enjoyment, not about analysing texts, she added.

Another area of concern is the pricing and availability of books in the UAE in general.

“School libraries are really poor in most cases,” said Ms Finnemore. Citing an example, she said she knew of a library that had several books on the Windows 97 computer operating system on its shelves.

A solution, she said, could be for business and industry to sponsor Dh25,000 worth of good books for a school, and the Ministry of Education could promote local authors through an anthology of short stories and poetry.

The UAE also needs to have more large bookstores across the country, as there are now only a few in the major malls, according to Ms Finnemore.

Poor reading skills can have a detrimental effect on a child’s education, not just in understanding material but also with their writing.

“They don’t come across good literary structures or meet interesting characters or develop their imagination, so their own writing skills are extremely poor,” said Ms Finnemore.

Emirati children, in particular, suffer from not having a diversity of reading material because of insufficient effort in promoting local authors in the UAE.

However, Dr Rabaa Al Sumaiti, director of international assessments at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), said that 15-year-old pupils in Dubai enjoyed more reading time than their peers in many countries, citing a 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment study.

The Arab Reading Challenge (ARC), an initiative launched by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, aims to have 50 million books read by children across the Middle East in the coming year.

Earlier this week, delegates from 20 countries taking part in the challenge visited the ARC headquarters in Dubai where Najla Al Shamsi, secretary general of the challenge, outlined their determination to tackle low reading levels in the Arab world.

On average, Arab children spend six minutes on reading a year, compared to 12,000 minutes for their western peers, according to the Arab Thought Foundation’s Arab Report on Cultural Development.

The challenge, launched in September, is the largest of its kind, with more than one million children committed to reading 50 million books every academic year.

As motivation, there is a shared prize fund of US$3 million (Dh11m) for pupils, teachers and schools.