As new mothers, Rama Kayyali, based in Jordan, and her friend Lamia Tabbaa, residing in London and then Dubai, found it difficult to access engaging current Arabic language books and audio-visual content for their young children that tackled pre-school basics.
They took matters into their own hands by asking family members for traditional nursery rhymes and using their film backgrounds to produce their own child-friendly Arabic short films. “We used puppets and animations and even filmed our kids in the backyard,” recalls Kayyali. “We hung flyers to advertise in nurseries expecting only 30 to 40 moms and our own family to show up, but we were shocked when over 300 people came. That’s when we knew we were solving a problem.”
According to the World Bank, 50% of children in the Middle East read below grade level and unofficially this number has gone up to 70% after covid, shares Kayyali, especially as 40% of students didn’t benefit from online learning.
Their idea grew into a full-fledged business called Little Thinking Minds, an edtech Arabic language learning platform focused on improving literacy outcomes and closing the education divide. Their initiative, I Read Arabic, is a 2022 Solve Global Challenge solution and currently reaches half a million students in 800 schools in 10 countries. I Read Arabic is an adaptive, personalized, gamified platform with hundreds of books, videos and games. There are also quizzes and detailed reports for teachers to see on a dashboard that identify where students have learning gaps.
“Arab children read six minutes a year of non-textbook material compared to 18,000 by their Western counterparts,” shares Kayyali. “We wanted to change that. We know reading is the key to learning and we focus on learning through reading.”
They started to look into why fewer children in the Middle East read. They found that culturally, stories are passed down verbally among generations and very limited published Arabic books exist. But this is changing.
“Today there is more mushrooming of children’s book publishers, but they’re scattered in various countries. If you have amazing books in Lebanon, you don’t necessarily find them in Saudi Arabia. Or, if you have beautiful books in Morocco, you might not find them in Egypt. And if books do get transported across countries, they are very expensive because of shipping costs,” says Kayyali.
To add to the issue, Kayyali shares that there are not many bookstores or public libraries in Arabic-speaking countries and she adds, “Public schools are overcrowded and underfunded.”
“There are 28 Arabic dialects and only 60% overlap between spoken Arabic and written Arabic,” says Kayyali. Little Thinking Minds has developed a variety of resources to bridge this gap. “We don’t just provide students with beautifully written and illustrated books, but we provide an immersive experience focused on improved learning outcomes. Our platforms are evidence-based and proven by 3rd parties to improve literacy by 25%”.
The organization works with regional award-winning Arab publishers as well as international publishers like Disney and Rebel Girls to get their material into the hands of families around the world The narratives are diverse and focus on SDGs such as gender equality and focus on social cohesion, inclusivity, and more. Kayyali and her team also hope to inspire young readers to become avid readers and proud of their identity.
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