On the occasion of Universal Children’s Day, You! takes a look at Pakistan Reading Project’s interventions in Azad Jammu & Kashmir, to improve the reading skills of children...
At a small government school, nestled amongst the scenic mountains of Muzaffarabad city in Azad Jammu & Kashmir, a teacher reads a story aloud to an eager group of seven-year-olds. Bright eyes shine and open wide with every plot twist. The ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ are audible from the corridor...
Sadly, this is not a scene that is often witnessed - at school or at home - as the importance of reading is increasingly undermined in our society. Consequently, children grow up without a childhood full of books and stories. Their imagination, ability to concentrate and think creatively, along with their world view remains restricted.
November 20th is celebrated as Universal Children’s Day. On this day, people come together to help improve child welfare globally, celebrate children’s rights and promote awareness about the critical needs of the world’s smallest citizens - many of whom are defenceless against negligence, conflict, and poverty.
As adults and in our roles as parents, teachers, and caregivers, Universal Children’s Day reminds us of the vital role we play in ensuring the positive future of the next generation. In Pakistan, there are initiatives that are bringing together teachers, parents and children to promote reading. The National Book Foundation, the Children’s Literature Festival, the Story Kit project, Indus Cottage Libraries - among a myriad of others - bring together dedicated Pakistanis who believe in the transformative power of books for children and adults. Bolstering this mix, is a systematic, nationwide reading initiative, the ‘Pakistan Reading Project’ (PRP) which aims to create over 1.3 million readers in grades 1 and 2. PRP has been supported by Pakistan’s provincial and regional governments and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) since 2013.
What PRP is about...
This seven-year programme is being implemented in public and non-profit private schools across Pakistan. PRP supports the creation and publication of books in multiple local languages for new and emerging readers, professional development for teachers and heads. It also supports policies that will reform the teaching and assessment of reading in Pakistan’s primary schools in coordination with Federal and Provincial governments, the Higher Education Commission, universities and teacher training institutes.
For this, USAID is also funding the $165 million Pakistan Reading Project, which is being implemented in 69 districts in 7 regions (Azad Jammu & Kashmir, Balochistan, FATA, Gilgit Baltistan, Islamabad Capital Territory, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh) across Pakistan.
PRP reaching the far flung areas
In AJ&K and GB, the Pakistan Reading Project is being implemented by ‘World Learning’. World Learning is an international non-profit organisation which has implemented projects in Pakistan since 2013, from basic education to systems strengthening and people-to-people exchanges.
Even thirteen years after the devastating 2005 earthquake, students of many schools in Azad Jammu & Kashmir go to an ‘open-air school’. As many as 50 of the schools in the area are being run under makeshift shelters. In a scenario like this, infrastructure gaps loom large - and a child’s inability to read at grade level often goes unnoticed.
Compounded by the lack of school facilities, harsh weather conditions further render schools inaccessible in winter. However, parents and teachers are committed to educating their children. Teachers are eager to being more innovative in their teaching reading approaches and are enthused at the idea of setting free their students’ curiosity and imaginations. School enrolment has reached 80 per cent and the ratio of girls to boys in school is nearly 50-50 per cent.
Enabling teachers to raise readers
Riffat Tahira, an early grade reading teacher in district Bhimber of Azad Jammu & Kashmir, wakes up at 5 am on a cold, crisp November morning as she needs to walk two miles to school. She has been teaching early grade students since 1988. As dedicated as she may have been over the past thirty years of her teaching career, it was consistently challenging to find interesting reading material for her students. Her school didn’t have a library and there weren’t many outlets for children’s books. Riffat often wished her students could access fascinating stories and information that would help turn them into lifelong readers.
To facilitate dedicated teachers like Riffat, the PRP has established 1500 libraries at schools in AJ&K. In addition, PRP supports teachers through trainings on the basic components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary building, oral reading fluency and reading comprehension), lesson plans and follow-up visits conducted by trained government mentors and project staff.
One such trainer visits Riffat regularly to discuss the challenges children face as they learn to read. Over the course of two years, through many face-to-face and group meetings, Riffat and her mentor worked through how to teach children phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension and phonemic awareness. She learnt about using flash cards, charts and audio-visual aides, along with techniques like sky-writing, tapping, clapping and read-aloud activities, to inculcate her student’s interest in reading. She also learned how to help struggling readers and how to assess students against established reading standards. “I love the reading and learning materials shared with us. My class completed the ‘Big Books’ and together we designed models of characters, shapes and other material for use in the classroom. This effort created an attractive reading and learning environment. I found my students developed a positive attitude towards reading due to this interactive way of teaching.”
Riffat shared her learning with other teachers too - emphasising the importance of role-plays and techniques to create a print-rich environment for students at all levels. Offering young children opportunities to interact with different forms of print through wall-stories, bulletin boards, word displays, charts and even stories of their own creation, teachers like Riffat are ensuring that reading becomes an ongoing, automatic, pervasive classroom activity. She is just one of the 3000 teachers, mentors, head teachers, and education officers trained through PRP in AJ&K that are innovating their teaching approach and changing lives.
Reducing language barriers in reading
One of Riffat’s students, Kashif, eagerly listens to the read-aloud story, but often doesn’t understand it.
He is curious and wants to learn, but can’t relate to stories in a different language, about children with strange names set in a landscape quite alien from his own. Uninspired and bored, he pushes the books away.
It is no surprise that Kashif has been failing to develop an interest in reading despite trying. The books he is trying to read are not in his mother language. A 2005 UNESCO report on the importance of mother tongue-based schooling for educational quality, suggests that young children learn faster and more effectively when they are taught in their mother language or in a language used in their immediate environment. Global research shows that strong foundational reading skills in mother tongue support students to develop mastery in other languages and subjects over time and during their academic career. PRP interventions are designed on this global body of evidence and interesting reading material for children has been developed in Urdu, Sindhi and Pashto.
Riffat sees the potential in Kashif and understands his struggle. She searches for books that contain local and inspiring heroes, stories and facts to offer Kashif and students in her class a blend of engaging content. To expand on local content available to children of all ages, World Learning partners with private publishers including ‘Dheere Bolo’, ‘SABAQ’, ‘AZ Corp’ and others to test and develop content in local languages with plotlines and characters that inspire and entertain children, promote curriculum content, and instil a sense of pride and wonder about Pakistan’s history and geography. Most importantly, the books are reviewed by PRP’s government partners for appropriateness and are accessible at affordable prices for purchase by students and parents.
It is also important to note that when it comes to Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), the girls are outperforming the boys in AJ&K. When Riffat asks her students to volunteer to read out a paragraph, most of the hands raised are of girls. An internal report on gender comparison for children’s reading by World Learning indicates that in 2013 (baseline) and 2017 (midline) girls’ mean ORF scores were higher than boys’, especially at Grade 5.
In 2017, higher percentages of girls than boys met or exceeded the performance standards in both Grade 3 and Grade 5. Also, more boys than girls were classified as non-readers. The reasons for these startling results are multifaceted; and more cultural and less dependent on teaching practices.
The government’s role
With all the good achieved through PRP, the underlying question is how do we continue to support Riffat and teachers like her when the Pakistan Reading Project ends? This is where the government is stepping up. PRP and the provincial and regional departments of education (DOE) are working in tandem to ensure that required resources are available to teachers and children. For instance, in AJ&K, the government has developed a transformation plan aimed at its teacher-training institutes. The plan clearly defines the functions of different departments whose inputs are required to support reading, confirms training approaches and highlights the implementation and financial details required to achieve its objectives.
PRP has also worked with the government of AJ&K to revise the Urdu curriculum and develop Urdu-reading standards for Grades one to five. The new curriculum will be implemented starting in the 2019 academic year. With new textbooks and better exercises to evaluate children’s reading proficiencies, teachers like Riffat will have the tools and systemic supports they need to ensure children read.
Encouraging children to read at home
While the government, schools, teachers, publishers and development sector organisations are exploring many ways to help children read, the best way to create a nation of readers is to offer a home environment that encourages and celebrates reading. Parents, grandparents, and caregivers play an enormous role in shaping children’s earliest impressions about the magic of books. Here are some ways parents can raise lifelong readers:
Start early, read widely: It is never too early to read to your child or to offer them a variety of fiction and non-fiction books. Infants and toddlers who grow up hearing stories and reading alongside the adults in their lives, develop critical cognitive skills - important for school readiness and academic success. Besides, reading to your children is a great way to bond and spend time together.
Read yourself: Lead by example! Let your children see you reading and observe you referencing facts that you learned from a book. Discuss challenges you encounter when reading and comprehending something. Apply interesting vocabulary.
Let them choose: Teaching a child to love reading involves a lot more than simply handing him a book. Ensure that children have choices in their reading material, and provide them a combination of challenging and easy print, audio and illustrated content. Children can access different levels of reading materials on their own, with a peer, or an adult. Don’t limit them from exposure to difficult concepts, just because they’re still learning how to read.
Show interest: Your response or feedback has a strong effect on how hard your child will try to become a good reader. Offer genuine praise, guidance and support, to enable them to master the basics of reading.