The British Council’s Kids Read program teams up with the Ministry of Education and HSBC to foster a love for books
By Farah Akkad
In the overwhelming world of technology and the internet, books nowadays are usually left on the shelves to be covered in dust. For many children in Egypt, bedtimes stories have been replaced with iPad games or TV. It’s hard enough to convince young children to read Arabic books for fun; reading an English book is a chore — even if they would gladly spend hours playing games or watching TV in English.
The Ministry of Education, British Council Egypt and HSBC have been working for the past two years to change that view with the Kids Read program. By engaging primary school children, their parents and public school teachers, Kids Read hopes to teach children that reading is fun and exciting and inspire them to love to read outside as well as inside the classroom.
“Kids Read is a program designed to develop reading skills and storytelling techniques by working with schools and extending the reach of reading techniques of English,” says Jonathan Gayther, Director of English at the British Council Egypt, noting that while many parents want their children to learn a foreign language, they struggle to motivate their children to read, especially in a foreign language such as English.
The motivation problem is connected in part to school. “Reading is usually equivalent to studying,” Gayther says, noting that most children see books as boring and only for memorizing or studying. If books are only taken from this side, “there is a huge experience being missed.”
And it’s an experience that was being missed across the region. So in 2010, the British Council marshaled its country offices to launch Kids Read in 11 countries: Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territories, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Over the course of an academic year, Kids Read distributes engaging children’s books from the UK, as well as lesson plans, resources and training for the teachers. Competitions and four community events per year for the general public are also part of the initiative. The family-oriented events include storytelling for children, arts and crafts activities as well as competitions and workshops for parents.
Gayther explains the goal is to deliver the message that reading is fun, “particularly in less privileged areas and public schools, where we work with the teachers and school authorities with full support from the Ministry of Education. That’s really an essential part of the program.”
Reading is more than just fun, though. “Lots of empirical research showed that succeeding in professional life is very closely tied to the child’s knowledge of reading,” Gayther adds. “Encouraging imagination, creativity, independence and making children see with the ideas with their minds is one of the program’s main focuses.”
Kids Read takes a three-pronged, community-based approach. For children, the program emphasizes the value of reading and its importance in their lives, building their creativity, imagination and their overall self confidence and independence. Not only do they read but they also give feedback about the stories they heard and tell their own ones.
Within the schools, Kids Read teachers are certified after receiving intense training workshops that focus on fitting in story telling with reading strategies in the classroom. The program’s main focus is English but it stresses encouraging children to enjoy reading in general, something that benefits them in all subjects.
There are also special sessions for parents to encourage them to read with and encourage their kids to develop their own views of the story, “That is why parents also attend sessions, because some are natural storytellers, others need to practice. They can do it step by step and at the end of the day its quality time,” Gayther says, adding that reading with children also lets parents slow down and recharge their batteries amid the hectic pressures of life.
Dr. Mona Gado, a lecturer of English and American literature at Banha University, attended a Kids Read community event in Heliopolis on November 18. “My sons and their 13 friends greatly enjoyed the day and they did not want to go home. To my surprise most of them enjoyed the storytelling best, and I am very happy to know that. I am seriously thinking of doing storytelling with them in order to maintain [their] interest in reading,” she said in an email to the event organizers. “It was also a great idea to mingle crafts with storytelling in order to attract kids to reading. It was wise to target parents through the parents’ workshop, though we needed more time to ask questions about problems we as parents find to encourage our kids to read in the age of technology. I was glad to see them all happy after a long tiring day; it seems it was tiring for me but the kids were still eager for more activities.”
The Kids Read philosophy is that good reading habits established at an early age help improve and develop performance in life and critical-thinking skills later in life. The British Council supervises the program in participating schools, and helps them evaluate the students’ progress with assessments and intra-school competitions during the academic year.
Sharing Across the Pages
Long before the internet, books were the gateway to new and exciting worlds and the windows on shared experiences. As a contemporary example, Gayther notes the children of refugees from Libya or Syria: Many of these kids learn to put their situation in context when they read stories about children going through the same situation. “They know they are not the only ones or the only families going though this and the most important thing is that it gives them more confidence.”
Through its community events, children get the chance to interact with their peers over the shared experience of a story.
Karin Foda of Baraem El Mansoureya NGO helped bring a group of children from a Mansoureya suburb to the Kids Read event at the British Council Heliopolis branch. “These kids rarely have the opportunity to leave their villages so this was a great chance for them to come to Cairo and do something not only fun but also educational. They all enjoyed the storytelling sessions, and I am sure the experience increased their enthusiasm for reading.”
With the right encouragement, Gayther says, it can be easy to bring kids to books. “Children will read for a sense of adventure, other times for a sense of thrill, if it is done with a good trainer, and built on working together as a team.”
Kids Read is the pet project of HSBC Bank Middle East Ltd, which is the sole sponsor for the programs in all countries except Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, the program is funded by SABB. The bank not only provides the money for the books, workshops and community events, but also provides staff volunteers for the community events. Last year, HSBC invested approximately $500,000 in implementing Kids Read programs across the region.
“At a general level, we’re finding that most children cannot afford buying books,” Gayther says. The sponsor funding helps Kids Reads distribute books to schools from a core library of 80 titles of British children’s fiction, covering a broad range of topics to appeal to as many children as possible. The variety helps ensure the kids are reading independently instead of for a teacher-led activity.
Working with HSBC Middle East, Kids Read is looking into expanding its program to include 20 more Egyptian public schools this year and is also participating in the 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt carnival next April.
In its first year, the program directly reached more than 25,000 students and 300 teachers in the MENA region. That success won the program a 2012 Silver Stevie International Business Award in the Corporate Social Responsibility category.
After Marwa Abbas took her two children to two Kids Reads family events, she told the organizers, “After the storytelling my 3 year-old boy, who hadn’t in fact seemed to be paying much attention, went to a book of wild animals that we have at home and started saying the names of the animals in English. Then we went to the zoo and he was able to recognise the animals and say their names. During the event in Maadi my daughter Malak sat and listened without participating, but last week she participated fully in the interactive storytelling. I feel that the storytelling events have stimulated her English learning, and on leaving the event she was able to have a short conversation with Neil about how her favorite book was ‘Monkey Puzzle’ and how much she had enjoyed the afternoon. We are looking forward to the next community event. Thank you personally for loving and giving children so much and thank you for a cultural centre that really cares.” et