When Maitha Al Khayat was a young pupil, she often stood at the back of the classroom, during Arabic lessons, hoping she would not be chosen to read out loud.
Now an acclaimed children’s book author, she said she struggled to stay engaged because the classes were overly focused on grammar and they studied books that were inappropriate for some pupils' reading levels.
"The focus was not on promoting reading,” said Ms Al Khayat, 41, from Ras al Khaimah. “It was on promoting principles.”
Around the same time, Hanada Taha Thomure, 52, began her career teaching Arabic to year three pupils in Beirut, Lebanon, and was struck by the absence of children’s books in the classroom.
While English classrooms brimmed with imaginative, approachable children’s literature that catered to every reading level, diverse libraries were conspicuously missing in Arabic classrooms.
“Arabic is supposed to be taught like any other language – you immerse children in it, you make them love it, you read to them in it, you have them read in it,” said Dr Thomure, a professor at Zayed University.
These early experiences were formative for Ms Al Khayat, Dr Thomure and a growing group of authors, publishers and educators who are focused on modernising Arabic language teaching through children’s books.
Last year, Dr Thomure and Shereen Kreidieh authored a study – "Arabic children's literature: Glitzy production, disciplinary content" published by Issues in Educational Research – where they examined award-winning children's literature from recent years.
“It's all educational, educational, educational. There's nothing wrong with that, it's wonderful. But children's literature is mostly to entertain, to make children love books,” Dr Thomure said.
Counterproductively, the books designed to teach actually drive children away from learning how to read because they do not inspire a love of language.
Both Dr Thomure and Ms Al Khayat advocate for levelled books or guided readers: books that were written intentionally to help children learn certain letters or words but with a heavy dose of whimsy and word play.
“I believe Arab kids need some lightness, and it will not make them immoral, it will not make them unethical, it will not make them corrupt [as some fear]. Let them have some good, fun literature in their young years," said Dr Thomure.
Ms Al Khayat echoed her sentiment. "People look at Arabic like it's a religious language that should not be played around with. I get Arabic teachers who would come to me and say 'You can't play with words’ like Dr Seuss, which is what I try to do sometimes in Arabic and the children love it."
To make it easier for teachers to incorporate fun children’s books into their lessons, Dr Thomure has partnered the Arab Thought Foundation to introduce her text levelling system and guided readings in the classroom. The system helps match pupils with books that will provide them an appropriate level of challenge.
Text levelling systems assign difficulty levels to individual children’s books based on the length and complexity of the words, amount of symbolism, and how closely the illustrations correspond to the words.
Text levelling is ubiquitous in English children’s literature, with publishing houses paying companies like Lexile to assign them a reading level. Levels are then generally displayed on the books in the form of a sticker or other marking.
The idea for the Arabic levelling system originally came up when Dr Thomure was working with Scholastic in 2008 to translate bestselling English literature – which was all levelled – to Arabic, which did not have a levelling system.
“And Scholastic asked me 'can we just use the same level?' and I was like 'Oh no, you cannot do that because it's not the same language any more, it's different. So that led to my initial attempt at putting together a raw levelling system.”
Ms Kreidieh, manager of the Lebanese Dar Asala publishing house, said some hard words in English have very easy Arabic translations and vice versa.
"If you translate ‘elephant’ into Arabic, it’s 'feel' so the level is totally different,” she said.
Through a grant provided by the Foundation, Dr Thomure is able to use her levelling system – the first of its kind in Arabic – to level books for publishers free of charge.
About 8,000 Arabic children’s books have been levelled so far and the system has been used by international children’s publishing powerhouses like Pearson and HarperCollins.
Ms Al Khayat participated in a different initiative with a similar goal commissioned by the Kalimat group, founded by Sharjah’s Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, daughter of the emirate’s ruler. Under their educational arm, Horouf, Sheikha Bodour spent several years writing guided readers, which help pupils learn to read in a structured way without much extra help from parents or teachers.
"They had a team who were professionals in the Arabic language in kindergarten and primary years and they knew what words the kids are supposed to be learning at each level,” said Ms Al Khayat.
“Every time I wrote, they would give me a set of words and some basic letters that frequently appear in Arabic words like d, b, and a. But I was the one who made up the story and decided what characters did."
“I tried to never write books that were preachy or sticking the information in your face. It was always presented in a really fun and humorous way and if there were any messages or any themes or a moral, they were just in there subtly between the lines.”
Despite her work to create a stronger Arabic children’s book industry infrastructure, Dr Thomure acknowledges it is ultimately up to schools to prioritise spending on classroom libraries.
“Research says you have to have around 20 titles per child in a classroom if we are really going to entice them to read. It's like chocolate, if you see it in front of you sitting there, you will eat it. Same thing with books. If you have books all around you – there is no escape, you will read,” said Dr Thomure.