With the UAE looking to open new chapters as a nation, the role of literacy looms larger than ever
As the world marks International Literacy Day on 8th September under the theme of Reading the Past, Writing the Future, it’s a chance to reflect on the progress the UAE itself has made in its attempts to promote the value of reading and create a knowledge-based economy for the future.
From literacy rates of 54 percent in men and 31 percent among women in 1975, to today’s 90 percent for both genders, the growth is impressive given the time frame.
Aside from the rise in the number of schools, and higher standards being implemented throughout the education sector by authorities like Abu Dhabi Education Council, much of the credit goes to the many programmes implemented on the ground to expose everyone, regardless of age or nationality, to the value of the written word.
The opening of libraries in public places, like the ones in Khalifa Park and Al Bahia Public Park, as well as key events like the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, are all designed to make reading accessible.
Last year, the nationwide Year of Reading campaign, built on the vision of making reading a daily habit in society by 2026, saw a series of activities being hosted – from the Arab Reading Challenge, to the passing of the National Reading Law geared towards building a community of readers and learners, to book donation drives here and abroad to help refugee camps and schools in need.
One non-profit group that is at the forefront of spreading literacy in the UAE is Wanna Read?, an initiative that promotes a love of reading among children with the creation of libraries in hospital paediatric wards, volunteering opportunities for students and adults, and community events like live reading sessions.
The initiative was founded by Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, who believes that despite the UAE’s progress in literacy, there’s still much to be done to keep current and future generations engaged.
“While the UAE places high importance on education and innovation, the concept of reading or of gaining knowledge and enjoyment from the act of picking up a book, is not embraced as fully here as it is in other areas of the world,” she tells us.
“We would like to encourage our youth to read, and to see that getting lost in a story can be as entertaining as a video game, but with a lasting impact. A video game will come and go, but the knowledge one gains from reading will remain for a lifetime.”
Part of the challenge is keeping up with evolving technology, something that should be seen as a positive tool rather than a threat, according to Sheikha Shamma.
“In a technology-driven society, even the simple act of reading a book must keep up with the evolution of innovation,” she reasons.
“The UAE is highly effective at embracing the newest technologies, and exposure to digital reading is no different. Regardless of the vessel that is used to deliver the words to children, be it from a book or an electronic device or book reading in public areas, the result is the same – knowledge.”
Certainly, the role of literacy will become all the more important as the country strives to diversify from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based powerhouse.
But to achieve this, Sheikha Shamma stresses the need for all sectors to come together to help the UAE develop bright minds early on to ensure the country will meet its future goals.
“Children learn by example, so encouraging families to read together would be a valuable motivator for children to pick up a book.
“Schools and peers also play an important role. School reading programmes and competitions are valuable motivators, and encouraging teachers, parents and mentors to read to children will instil a love of books at an early age.
“It is only through literacy and education that we can move forward as global leaders in innovation, technology and designing a future for this planet beyond the comprehension of our current time.
“All new inventions, all cures for diseases, the history-making speeches that will be delivered by future leaders, all of these start with literacy.
“There is perhaps no more important ability than the ability to read.”