Teacher and children reading

A Storybook Beginning

NYUAD is addressing a critical need for more child-friendly Arabic language fiction

Reading stories is a critical part of learning a language. In English, countless storybooks are used in schools to help children learn to speak, read, and write.

In Arabic, however, fictional literature for children is scarce, which might help explain why average illiteracy rates are higher in Arab countries than the rest of the world.

“There is a critical need for more Arabic reading materials suitable for different age groups to reinforce success in school,” said Muhamed Al-Khalil, associate professor of Arabic and the founding director of the Arabic studies program at NYU Abu Dhabi. Simplified literature is one way to address this, he explained, because it is “accessible to demographics with lower literacy rates, or with no access to schooling.”

Muhamed Osman Al-Khalil, Director of Arabic Studies, Associate Professor of Practice of Arabic Language, NYUAD

There is a critical need for more Arabic reading materials suitable for different age groups to reinforce success in school.

Muhamed Al Khalil, associate professor of Arabic

Simplification means taking a novel like The Thief and the Dogs — a classic work by Naguib Mahfouz meant for adults — and modifying the language to create a version that’s easy for someone learning Arabic to understand, while also preserving the story.

English readability formulas that assist the simplification process were created decades ago and are now computerized. In Arabic, however, there are no reliable formulas. Until now.

“Arabic teachers who love a work of fiction can simplify it for younger learners,” Al-Khalil said, “but they don’t have a system to go by. They improvise, and the end result is a subjective version that’s inefficient for learning. We’re going to standardize the process.”

Al-Khalil’s NYUAD research team is developing the first-ever set of guidelines for Arabic literature simplifiers to follow, computer software that will help them with vocabulary, expressions, and idioms, and a library of materials for UAE teachers in grades 4 to 10.

The resources will be essential for learning, Al-Khalil concluded, and help “establish NYU Abu Dhabi as a world-class center for research in Arabic pedagogy and natural language processing.” 

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