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.
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