Research has shown time and again that a well-established practise for developing early literacy skills is that of ‘reading aloud’. This is where parents read aloud to their children from the earliest age. Even babies can be read to by their parents.

Benefits

Reading to children has many benefits like:

  1. Creating a powerful bonding experience between parent and child. Children gain a lovely sense of warmth and security from it
  2. Teaching children basic concepts such as the look, feel and function of a book, opening and closing a book, and turning its pages
  3. Helping children to develop a love for books and stories, which prepares them for reading by themselves later 

So as Arab parents living in the west, we may already have established reading routines with our children, such as reading before bedtime. Many of the questions I get asked are about how to replicate this routine in Arabic, using Arabic story books. This is a complex question with complex answers. The short answer is simply, as things currently stand, we can’t. At least not as easily or as simply as we find ourselves doing with European languages.

Any why is that? Here are some of the glaring issues that desperately need addressing. That is if we hope to develop our children’s early literacy skills in Arabic. As well as a lifelong love of reading in Arabic.

  1. The availability and quality of Arabic children’s books 

There has been a vast improvement in the quality and availability of Arabic children’s books in recent years. (Check out our favourites here). But any parent who regularly reads to their children in Arabic will tell you there aren’t enough good quality books. And those that are available are not easy to find. They need to be bought locally in an Arabic-speaking country. Or a limited number may be available to purchase online but mostly with a hefty shipping fee added on top. Or you might be lucky enough to live close to a bookshop that stocks Arabic children’s books. A rarity indeed. 

Most parents resort to the first two options, but it does limit the number and frequency of books bought. That’s why at Kalamna we have our own library of Arabic children’s books (and DVDs). It helps parents find high quality, engaging story books to read to their children, from the earliest age. 

The fantastic initiative Hadi Badi offers great reviews of Arabic children’s books, as well as stockists.

Additionally, Arabic Book a Month offers a subscription service. I have tried it and highly recommend it.

  1. The lack of colloquial children’s Arabic books written in the spoken dialects 

Once parents have access to our library, or any good Arabic children’s books they are lucky enough to find, they are quickly surprised to see that children’s books are written in Standard Arabic, or fusHa. Most parents will therefore start to translate what they are reading on the spot, known as sight-translation. 

There are several problems with this: 

Firstly, it is difficult to repeat the same sight-translation again and again and variations will inevitably occur. Children often ask for books and stories to be read repeatedly, and this repetition is vital to their learning. When we read with variations each time, it loses the effect of repetition of the same text and dilutes the learning process. 

Secondly, young children’s books often contain rhymes that help children’s language development. It is very difficulty to sight-translate rhymes, so again, the learning process is diluted when a critical part is missed out. 

Thirdly, it is tiring and not always easy to sight-translate and parents get tired or bored easily, and it makes it harder for us to pick up an Arabic book and encourage our children to listen to us read, when we ourselves lack the enthusiasm for it. 

Lastly, although some books are written in such a way that they are as close to the spoken dialect as possible, we are missing key cultural references and language chunks that children can relate to when we are in a constant battle to keep the language in an acceptable form of the Standard. 

What can we do about this?

One of the best solutions to this problem is the fantastic website www.tuta-tuta.com. It offers free translations of numerous children’s classics and a number of popular titles by the Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson. They are all in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. Not only can you print and stick these translations into your own books, you can listen to them being read aloud while watching a video with the illustrations. This effort is the result of a frustrated parent’s attempt to find colloquial Arabic children’s books, and has to date been unable to publish these fantastic translations due to the stigma that surrounds colloquial Arabic writing for children.

Another frustrated parent went a step further and founded their own publishing house, Ossass Stories

In fact, several successful children’s authors have spoken of their struggle to publish their works in dialectal Arabic. This begs the question, who benefits from this insistence on publishing children’s books solely in Standard Arabic?

  1. The belief that reading in Arabic should serve the sole purpose in teaching/mastering Standard Arabic

This goes against the whole idea of reading for pleasure, and is similar to the argument made for making children’s programmes (including cartoons!) in Standard Arabic. If adult entertainment is made in everyday spoken Arabic, why should children be deprived of this form of entertainment and made to watch things only for an ‘educational’ (or more like instructional) purpose, even when what they are viewing is made for entertainment, not educational purposes (such as Disney films)?

Reading to children in the early years should be about sitting down and enjoying a good book together. Books need big, eye-catching illustrations and an engaging storyline that is relevant to a young child. It shouldn’t always be about teaching the child a lesson. Children need characters (and language!) they can relate to, that they can enjoy, as well as learn from. We are not directly teaching children to read when we read aloud to them, we are allowing them to experience the joy and pleasure of a good book. That feeling will stay with them and make them more open and receptive to learning to read when the time comes.

So the (not so simple) answer, is for publishers to provide more high-quality Arabic children’s books, written in an everyday spoken language that they can recognise and relate to. Only then can we begin to tackle the issue of Arabic literacy in later childhood years.

For an example of a popular children’s book in Egyptian Arabic dialct, take a look at the video below: