ABU DHABI // As Israa Ashraf, 10, stood on the small stage at the back of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, a crowd gathered to hear her speak. She was reading aloud from a book called Halima Tadda al Bayd, or Halima Lays Eggs, in the final round of Read Aloud, the first reading competition for grade five students across the capital.
The five finalists, three girls and two boys, all 10 years old, read aloud for two minutes in front of a panel of judges and a public audience at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. Three judges then quizzed the children and assessed them on their knowledge of the book and their reading skills. Israa, who attends Safana bint Hatem al Ta'ee preliminary school for girls, was the overall winner. Her prize, a Dh1,000 (US$272) voucher, 10 books and the chance to be one of the judges for next year's competition, was presented by Dr Ali bin Tamim, the director of Kalima, the translation arm of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.
"I am very happy," said Israa, with a big smile on her face as she accepted the prize. Dr bin Tamim said the quality of all the competitors was high and that the event had been difficult to judge. He said Israa scored the highest marks in the tone of her delivery, her reading technique and her overall understanding of the passage. The contest was launched in January, when pupils from 18 schools began competing in heats.
One judge, the Kuwaiti novelist Laila al Othman, said she was impressed by the progress the children made over the course of the rounds. "I am very positive about these children's talent," she said. "I hope they are encouraged by this competition and I hope that parents continue to encourage them to read so their love of books stays with them for the rest of their lives." Dana al Sarraj, the manager of the competition, said she thought it had been very successful.
"This is the largest crowd I have seen for any of the public events at the fair," she said. "And we have had world-class professionals here. It just goes to show that there is an interest for the creativity and talent of children." The aim of the competition was to engage the whole family in the practice of reading, she said. "It is in the Arabic tradition to recite poetry, and we wanted to re-ignite that with this competition. We want to make reading a social activity."
Ms al Sarraj said the inspiration for Read Aloud came from Germany, where a similar competition has been running for 50 years. She hopes this, too, will become an entrenched part of the book fair and school timetables. "Reading is so important and we want to help the children see that books can be fun," she said. Part of the purpose of the fair was to boost children's enthusiasm about books in Arabic, said Ms Al Sarraj.
"We chose Kalima as our sponsor because we don't want the children to forget their own language," she said. "We hope the competition continues to grow." Next year, the event will include schools in Al Ain, and the competition will expand to the Western Region. In a few years, Ms al Sarraj hopes, the event will become nationwide. firstname.lastname@example.org