Arabic language kid’s books need to improve

Omar Al-Ubaydli
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Reading is central to a child’s intellectual formation. Arab children are disadvantaged compared to their English-speaking peers because of gaps in the texts available to early readers. For Arabs to retain their sense of identity, their children must be able to learn Arabic easily. So Arabic language publishers need to address the deficiencies in their output.

As an Arab parent raising young children in a world where English-language media dominate, I have struggled to ensure that my children learn to communicate effectively in Arabic. The easy choice is to ignore our mother tongue, as many parents have, but my wife and I firmly reject that option for two reasons.


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First, Arabic remains important in daily life, whether communicating with others in our region or practicing Islam. Second, the Arabic language is part of my children’s identity. It is part of the answer to the question my children will eventually start to ask themselves: who am I?

Those without a strong identity are doomed to suffer a deep sense of internal psychological distress, which I can see in the young Arabs who have grown up unable to communicate effectively in Arabic. They neither look nor sound like Americans, nor can they consider themselves complete Arabs. So, they feel lost, though they might not always realize it.

Unfortunately, completely outsourcing teaching Arabic to schools is not prudent. It has become important for Arabs to complement what their children learn in the classroom with systematic efforts at home. One of the simplest and most effective steps continues to be reading books with your children.

The problem I have faced is that early readers’ selection of Arabic language books is feeble. The entry-level is satisfactory – I can find the books with big, colorful pictures and one or two words on the page.

The literature takes off when it comes to books with entire or multiple paragraphs on each page, which is suitable for children aged eight or older. It includes books that are initially in Arabic or ones that have been translated from English, and no young Arab can hope to exhaust the choices available. For young adults, the options are excellent.

The problem is for those aged 5 to 7 years, for whom a page with a paragraph in small font is too hard. Once they have mastered single words and are ready to move on to short sentences, or a couple of sentences on the page, the options are minimal.

Provision of 80,000 copies of Holy Quran in Masjid Haram on the occasion of arrival of Hajj pilgrims. (Stock image)
Provision of 80,000 copies of Holy Quran in Masjid Haram on the occasion of arrival of Hajj pilgrims. (Stock image)

In contrast, in the English language, innumerable options are available at every rung of the reading ladder. Moreover – unlike their Arabic language counterparts – it is clear that the English language options reflect a methodical approach to the science of learning. The books build the elements of reading systematically so the child can gain confidence and develop an intrinsic love of reading.

Unfortunately for a five-year-old Arab child, the available options make reading a chore and stunt their progress. It makes it even easier to slide toward the easy option of just ditching Arabic and focusing on English.

In defense of Arab publishers, the English have a vibrant history in the literary arts. During the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Germans were excelling in music and the French were leading the world in visual arts, the English distinguished themselves in literature.

It makes it understandable that the modern Arabic language literature is not as developed as its English language counterpart. However, as far as children’s books are concerned, the gap remains inexcusably large. Moreover, it is clear that Arabic language books are not based on a scientific approach to teaching the Arabic language, and this has to change.

It can be seen in how the books are marketed in online bookstores: those in English clarify the skills the child should expect to acquire from the book in question and show you pictures of typical pages in the book so that you can select the appropriate text for your child. In Arabic, you see nothing more than the cover of the book and a broad age range that is frequently inaccurate or unrealistic.

Some excellent online services have emerged, such as AlefBaTa, and they have manifestly approached Arabic language teaching using modern pedagogical techniques. However, like most parents, I want to cut screen time down for my young children. I want to sit on the couch with my daughter and son with a physical book in my hand, to point at words, and sound them out together.

For Arabs, our most sacred text – and one that is a central part of our identity – is the Holy Quran. Unfortunately, we are raising children who cannot read it. Given that the first word of the Quran to be revealed was the imperative “read” or “recite,” we have to teach our children well. With a few simple changes, Arabic language publishers can make a significant, positive contribution to addressing this problem.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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