Washington, June 29, 2021 – More than half of children in countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) experience “learning poverty”―they cannot read and understand an age-appropriate text by age 10. This is preventing most of the region’s children from fully engaging in their education and is holding back countries’ progress in human capital formation, according to a new World Bank report.
When children start school, they learn to read and write in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is different to how they speak at home. This poses several challenges. The report, Advancing Arabic Language Teaching and Learning—A Path to Reducing Learning Poverty in the Middle East and North Africa, examines the evidence on factors influencing Arabic learning and proposes a path to guide countries in their efforts to strengthen learning outcomes.
“We had a learning crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic and now we have an even greater challenge on our hands,” said Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa. “MENA’s education systems need to deliver stronger foundational skills so that children can effectively “learn to read” in order to “read to learn.” Investments in a high-quality education for every child today will equip the young boys and girls of our region with the fundamental skills needed to become the innovators and entrepreneurs of the future.”
Children’s experience with MSA is limited before they reach school age. For example, parents in MENA are less likely to read to their young children or play word games with them compared to parents in other regions. Enrollment in formal early childhood education programs such as preschool―where literacy skills can be developed―is lower in MENA than in other regions.
These challenges can be addressed by purposeful actions such as having a language-rich environment, early exposure to MSA, and high-quality instruction that is based on the science of learning to read and that maximizes the overlap between MSA and colloquial varieties. However, there are many practices related to early childhood experiences and the teaching and learning of Arabic in preschool and the early grades of school that are resulting in poor literacy outcomes. This puts children at a disadvantage at the start of their schooling and goes on to affect further learning throughout their school lives and into their adult lives.
“The science of learning to read shows that an extensive vocabulary helps children to transition from the Arabic spoken at home to MSA,” said Andreas Blom, World Bank MENA Education Practice Manager. “A language-rich environment is important in the home and in schools.”
However, this is not happening consistently. Children in MENA are less likely than their peers in other countries to have children’s books at home, to be in a school with a big library (or any library), or to be asked by their teacher to read a chapter book.
The approach to best teach Arabic language to young native speakers needs strengthening. Children are taught to read and write in a rigid way with a focus on rules, grammar, and accuracy. Children also experience a lack of playfulness and inquiry that are needed to fully engage them in literacy learning. Teachers, including many Arabic language teachers, are themselves the product of ineffective Arabic language education and often are not comfortable using it as a medium of instruction. Very few university teacher preparation courses include targeted Arabic teaching and learning studies that are based on the science of learning to read.
The report proposes a path to advance Arabic language teaching and learning. This starts with developing specific, quantifiable goals for children’s Arabic language learning outcomes with clear links to countries’ social and economic policy goals, such as through a national literacy strategy. Other steps relate to early exposure to MSA, teaching methods, curriculum materials, teacher education programs and professional development, support to schools, assessment, and early intervention for struggling readers.