Is the lack of reading culture in Muslim societies connected to the approaches to education?
People often say that there is no reading culture in Muslim countries. You also frequently hear that education is the solution to all our problems. Yet, we hardly ever probe these catchphrases to understand the obstacles hampering reading culture or what sort of education would resolve our dilemmas.
Having lived and worked in Karachi, Pakistan, for more than a decade, as a parent and a teacher, gave me insight into some of the underlying issues impacting the lack of reading culture in Muslim societies and how education may be connected to it.
Bumps on the Road to Reading
For me, reading has always been something very personal. My first experience of sharing my love for reading happened when I became a mother. There is immense satisfaction in enjoying a stack of books with your toddler and knowing that they care for neither toys nor cartoons in that given time! Or when you go upstairs after wrapping up housework and you find them quietly reading in bed before falling asleep!
In contrast, when I took up teaching, I was not able to similarly inspire my students despite my zeal for reading. In fact, I was not prepared for a lot of my eighth and ninth graders’ rather apathetic and blasé attitudes toward reading. What surprised me, even more, was when my daughter — who attended the same school — began to lose interest in reading. Yet, every day I witnessed teachers like myself diligently working to stimulate student interest in reading and literature through classroom instruction, extracurricular activities, library blocks, you name it.
Many of my students fell behind on their reading and no amount of “extra help” enabled them to do well in class. Worse, they were unable to think critically and move beyond the shell of the written story. Those who excelled were the readers – they not only enjoyed the thinking exercises but also, at times, refined my understanding of the text. Clearly, these were my gifted and talented students. However, I became haunted by the ones for whom I couldn’t make a difference.
I started researching about developing thinking skills in students from an early age and began studying early childhood educational theories, only to realize the answers lay closer to home. When my daughter, a third-grader, announced, “Mama, books are boring!” deep down I knew that if I didn’t help her now, she would go on to become just like one of my students who were disinterested in reading. I selected books that I wanted her to read but she was resisting, so I began reading them aloud to her and my son, who was only 15 months younger than her. Soon, bedtime became a breeze and eventually, I saw that they would finish the book themselves. Gradually, my daughter got back on track with independent reading, and I did not have any trouble with my son’s reading trajectory.
This experience made me wonder: if it worked for my children, what about others? Digging into research, I was amazed to find the importance of reading aloud throughout the grades. Further, it wasn’t a coincidence that my daughter found reading difficult in third grade. Research shows that third grade is when schoolwork becomes taxing and if students are not able to keep up with it, it leads to the “fourth-grade slump,” a decrease in reading scores (https://www.ccf.ny.gov/files/9013/8262/2751/AECFReporReadingGrade3.pdf).
But here’s the thing: the fourth-grade slump mostly affects children of lower socioeconomic status. My daughter, like my students, hailed from the middle class with plenty of privilege and access. After all, they attended private schools! What was going on here?
Medium of Instruction
In some parts of the Muslim world, they are called international schools but in Pakistan, due to the rapid deterioration of public schools, a crop of (commercially-run) private schools began flourishing in the 1990s. Catering to a predominantly middle-class clientele, these schools mainly adopted the British educational system and English as a medium of instruction. They worked diligently to provide the necessary elements for their student’s academic success such as proper infrastructure, committed teachers, involved parents, school libraries, and regular extracurricular activities.
This model was already functioning effectively in elite schools where we can find a thriving literary culture. However, there is one glitch. Unlike their cosmopolitan elite counterparts, middle-class families do not largely speak in English at home. Indeed, middle-class students in Karachi attend English-medium private schools during the day and come home to an environment where they — like my daughter — predominantly speak in Urdu or their regional language. Without proper support, students fall through the cracks because at one point achieving grade-level bilingual literacy is not enough. Neither are committed teachers, engaged parents, quality infrastructure, or access to books apparently.
Middle-tier private schools in Karachi — and of course, in many post-colonial urban centres across the world — have tried and failed for decades to achieve schoolwide reading culture despite all the perks! One of the reasons is that developing countries have been taking research from Western, monolingual countries and applying it without understanding the bilingual and multilingual context.
Although students in these middle-tier schools gain early bilingual literacy (English and Urdu), too many students eventually lose interest in reading in either language, except for a gifted minority. As the texts become more complicated, basic proficiency in the English language is no longer adequate and the constant translation in the head becomes quite a chore. Due to their privilege, middle-class students have access to private tutors and tuition centres whose assistance enables them to successfully enter higher education. Reading for pleasure, unfortunately, goes by the wayside. The formation of creative and critical thinking skills also become stunted in this exam-centric educational system.
This dichotomy between home and school languages exists in the low fee private schools as well as the public school system. In fact, illiteracy in Pakistan is related to the core problem of the medium of instruction too: when a child speaks one language at home and is taught in another at school, with hardly any support at home together with lack of resources, research shows that the result is either in-school children with little to no learning or steep dropout rates.
Instruction in a multilingual context is a complicated issue. For many, English maybe a third or fourth language; for instance, Urdu is not the first language for most Pakistanis. While educators prefer the stability of a tried-and-tested (colonial) educational system, parents also see English as a ticket for their child’s bright future. However, language is intimately connected with a nation’s reading, writing, and thinking cultures. When we produce individuals who achieve only basic competency in English, Urdu/native language, etc., we are sacrificing deep learning, analytical skills, and writing proficiency. These are the ingredients that bring progress, not just learning how to read and write.
And yet, for too long policymakers have been creating a perfect arc between literacy and development when the reality is that we need to focus on important mediators such as how to nurture society-wide reading culture, idea generation, and knowledge production for the country to advance. Examining the challenges encountered by the literacy-rich and resource-rich middle class in the attainment of reading culture will give vital clues to fully understanding and resolving this conundrum.
Saulat Pervez, a writer, educator, and researcher, delivered a shorter version of this article in a presentation at the 2019 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha, Qatar.