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Child Literature In Education - Missed Opportunities in a Failing System

3 August, 2016
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Students, families and education professionals agree on one thing: Egypt's educational system needs all the help it can get. With the country ranked in 116th place out of 140 countries in the Global Competitiveness Report last year, people are seeking all manner of alternative solutions, from private tuition to homeschooling. Could an early appetite for reading give children the tools to flourish in the education system?

"Our literature should be part of the curriculum, and if not then we should find a way to encourage children to read," said Rania Amin, a student consultant and a children's author. Amin is known for her storybook collection, Farhaana ("Happy"). Farhaana is a young girl, who learns–along with the young readers–a moral value in each story.

Amin adds a little bit of her childhood and school memories into her works. In one book, Fahaana learns to believe in her inner beauty when she is not considered pretty enough to take the lead in a school play. The moral shows that school also provides a social education, something that Amin is concerned about.

Working with children, Amin realized that jealousy and selfishness are becoming more common in child behavior as a result of the competitive spirit they are forced into at school and at home. "They are constantly expected to get the best grades, be the smartest, the fastest, the best in whatever they do," she says. "This has turned the children against each other, and it's no wonder they are lacking the values of kindness, altruism and empathy because they don't go hand in hand with what the whole society is worshipping now: individual power and success."

As a solution, books are a major source of inspiration for children, said Amin. "When kids identify themselves with the fictional characters, they will internalize the characters' values and can be positively influenced to change some of their harmful beliefs."

To encourage children to read, Inji Hafed, a primary school head teacher with a bachelor's degree in English Literature and a master's degree in special education, explains that early exposure to reading is key factor in engaging children with literature. "School and home contribute much to the interest of reading, so the more they encourage reading and make literature available to children the more children will be willing to spend time reading."

This, in turn, gives the child advantages with school educational material. Awareness of reading difficulties can also have an impact on children's motivation to read, Hafed said. Spotting reading difficulties early on can alleviate frustration and ameliorate reading fluency and comprehension, which has an impact across the curriculum.

Furthermore, she stressed, "Using authentic children's literature in teaching literacy is highly more effective than relying on textbooks, which are quite unreal and limited in terms of vocabulary description and genres."

Researcher Farida Makar took a focus on national education during her Master's degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies. She said that the problem is that children today think of reading books negatively, and deliberately link the experience to reading textbooks in school. She asserts that the fun factor in education needs to be empowered.

As part of her research, Makar looked at History and National Studies textbooks in the Egyptian high school curriculum. She points out that everything in the curriculum is exam-driven and therefore treated with bullet points and lists of terms and events to learn by rote.

"Lots of parents complain that the curriculum is difficult," Makar explained. "[But] it is not difficult, in fact it's too simplistic - it's boring."

"Everything that happens in the school is part of the learning process," she said; Textbooks, the classroom activities, the time duration spent in school, the number of students in the classroom, the building's architecture, and so on, are all very interrelated and therefore all equally effective on how well the student learns.   

The Egyptian primary school's semester is one of the shortest in the world. The huge amount of content packed into the syllabus needs to be taught, exercised and pre-tested in that period. "This has a very intensive impact on the absorption of the important lessons studied in school," Makar said.

Returning to literature, she says: "The choice of books in the curriculum is very miserable. Where is literature?" exclaimed Makar in disapproval. "There is no fusion of contemporary literature whatsoever."

"Blending more quality child literature into the curriculum might not be sustainable," she said. It won't change anything as long as the treatment stays the same. In other words, as long as the syllabi are laid out in terms of bullet points and lists of things to learn by heart, "… the fun storybook will quickly turn into the boring storybooks," Makar explained further.

The Egyptian government does not invest enough in education, and that's the main reason why education is in this deteriorating state, said Makar. "There is no real political will to improve education in Egypt." The government depends on international donor agencies to contribute with some reforming programs, "... which is all very good and everything, but it's definitely not enough! The main effort needs to be exerted by the Ministry of Education itself, as it is the only foundation that has access to this huge amount of children, and therefore, of course, will be more effective."

Image: UN ISDR / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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