Khalifa directs National Reading Law; Mohammed approves strategy

Ten-year national reading strategy is backed by a Dh100 million fund

His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, has given directions to start the legislative procedure of drafting a UAE National Reading Law, which aims to ensure the sustainability of all government efforts to consolidate reading in the UAE for all ages, as well as identify the key responsibilities of government agencies in the field.

The law comes as part of the National Policy for Reading in the UAE, which was announced this morning at a press conference during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

Also under the policy, the National Reading Strategy was adopted by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

The strategy, which carries through to 2016, includes 30 main national initiatives sectors including education, health, culture, social development and the media and content industries.

The media event, addressed by five Federal Government Ministers, also saw the announcement of a Dh100 million fund, backed by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, to support all reading activities specifically for NGOs and volunteer based agencies.

Additionally, the details of a number of initiatives were shared at the event, including the adoption of one month each year by the UAE Cabinet to be dedicated to reading; the distribution of ‘Bags of Knowledge’ to new born citizens of the UAE; directions to enrich national reading content; a detailed review of publishing policies in UAE intended to support local publishers and the inclusion of elective social reading into the UAE curriculum as a measurable element of educational institutions.

In this context, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan stressed, "The UAE has moved during the past few decades from a country seeking to reduce illiteracy to a country seeking global competition in technical and scientific fields. Reading and knowledge are our path to excel and compete."

He added, "All reading policies and strategies are policies for building the nation and establishing educated, conscious, empowered and tolerant people. Our goal is to prepare our future generations to achieve developmental leaps, underpin our national leadership goals, strengthen our competitiveness and achieve our future vision for the UAE."

His Highness commented on his direction to issue the National Reading Law: "The goal of the Reading Law is to provide a sound basis for lifelong learning for all members of our community and enhance the mental, intellectual and cultural assets of our people."

He added "The Reading Law will institutionalise and sustain efforts to make reading a key element of the work, jurisdiction and mission of a number of government agencies."

For his part, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum confirmed that, "The United Arab Emirates, under the directives of His Highness the President, will be a pioneer in our region in issuing a law intended to promote, consolidate and support reading." He highlighted that the law will begin its legislative cycle during the coming few weeks.

His Highness said, "The consolidation of reading for our new generations is a long-term effort. Its consequences are profound and the government can’t make a difference alone without the efforts of families and all community initiatives from government and private institutions as well as associations of publishers, writers, intellectuals and professionals."

His Highness added, "Our current generation is suffering from a reading crisis, and we will not flatter ourselves when it comes to developing the future of this generation."

He highlighted the superiority of the states and nations comes from facing challenges with courage and addressing them. "We have book fairs, cultural festivals, literary and poetry awards and now a range of new initiatives to protect the language and encourage reading. We are building the basis for our journey towards cultural excellence."

His Highness stated: "There is no knowledge-based economy without knowledge-based societies. Our development strategies cannot be built without building the capacity of our young generation. We can’t create a socially aware, tolerant society with strong family values and a sense of national identity without culture, reading and knowledge. A reading society embraces civilized values, is flexible and adaptable and has the intellectual capacity to drive development to take a role in our multi-cultural world."

Key Elements

The announcement of the National Strategy for Reading in the UAE was made with the participation of Mohammed Abdullah Al Gergawi, Minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, and President of the Supreme Committee for the ‘Reading Year’;  Abdul Rahman bin Mohammed Al Owais, Minister of Health and Prevention; Hussain bin Ibrahim Al Hammadi, Minister of Education; Najla bint Mohammed Al Awar, Minister of Community Development; Dr. Sultan bin Ahmed Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of State; Afra Al Sabri, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture and the Knowledge Development and Saeed Al Eter, Director General of the Public Diplomacy Office at the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and the Future.

Key elements of the initiatives under the Policy include changes in the educational system, curricula and the evaluation of schools and institutions of higher education to address the imbalance in the decline in reading rates. The initiative will include adopting a national health programme to encourage reading from birth, and providing three bags of books for each Emirati child during the first four years of his life.

The national policy for reading also includes assigning the National Media Council (NMC) to prepare an integrated media policy to support reading, and requires media platforms to allocate resources, hours and programmes to support the national movement for reading.

Additionally, the NMC will re-evaluate government policies in the publishing sector, and establish a national programme to support reading content for children and youth in the coming years. It was also announced that March will be declared as the UAE’s Month of Reading each year starting from 2017, with October 2016 being the first UAE Month of Reading.

During the announcement it was also revealed that Unesco standards for school libraries will be applied to all public schools, and their classification will be raised according to international standards. Also announced were the national targets for reading until 2026, including raising reading rates to 80% among students and 50% among adults, and raising the national output of content from the current 400 books per year to 4,000 books in 2026.

 Mohammed Al Gergawi, Chairman of the Supreme Committee for the UAE Year of Reading, announced that the strategy was based on evaluating over a hundred international studies, taking into account over 4,000 ideas and suggestions from the public and a national survey of over 12,000 people and was a government priority and a key requirement for development to achieve real leaps in all fields.

Commenting on the inputs for the reading strategy, he said: "We in the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and the Future allocated a team to work on a long-term strategy for reading which took a number of inputs, as well as receiving briefings on reading strategies in seven countries, as well as conducting internal interviews with 47 local and federal entities concerned with this subject, and supervised undertaking a national survey on reading which is the first of its kind to evaluate where we stand in the field of reading currently in the UAE."

He said, "The national survey covered 12,000 people across six categories; students, parents, university students and employees in the public and private sectors, the general public and others. The results showed that individuals in the UAE read 1.5 books per year, while 78% of Emirati adults do not actively read."

He added: "Our homes include only 20 books on average, compared to 200 books per home in the United Kingdom, for example. Also the average rate of reading for UAE students is four books per year compared to 40 books a year in South Korea, and the reading rates decrease to more than 30 percent when students move to higher educational stages. The national survey also showed that 50 percent of school and university students have no habit of reading."

He commented on the results saying: "Changing a society's behaviour is not something easy, and we are aware of that, so today

you can see five ministers working as a team to overcome this challenge and achieve the vision of our wise leadership in establishing a reading, education conscious society."

Al Gergawi also discussed the details of the strategic plan for reading and explained that it includes educational, health and media programmes and a programme for creating content and a programme for a lifetime reading, all working in an integrated manner and in parallel to change the reality of reading in the UAE society by 2026 and make it a way of living.

He added: "The National Strategy aims for reading to become a life habit for 50% of Emirati adults and 80% of our school students. And for the optional reading average per student to reach 20 books at least annually, and for half of local parents to undertake to read for their children.

He stated that a special guide to the strategy will be issued for all entities concerned with applying the strategic plan, and reading initiatives will be integrated within the strategic and operational indicators for all concerned entities.

This will be followed up through the performance sector in the Prime Minister's Office, which will submit periodic reports to the Council of Ministers on the progress being made.

Main Objectives

Hussain bin Ibrahim Al Hammadi, Minister of Education, pointed out that the nation’s direction in making 2016 a year of reading articulates the leadership’s vision and marks an important step in driving forward the education process. Reading is inextricably linked to knowledge and the academic achievement of students. This has led the Ministry of Education to accelerate its efforts in setting up a plan that instills reading as an important activity for students.

He added that the education programmeme for the strategic national reading plan focuses on four main objectives – enhancing the linguistic abilities of students, instilling reading as a main component in the educational system, putting in place qualified human resources, and providing an enabling reading environment with suitable content.

The Minister added that a reading programmeme comprises several initiatives. The programme includes an innovative plan to link curricula with extracurricular activities that support a culture of reading. Another ongoing initiative aims to shape school libraries into innovative centers that offer an encouraging environment to spread the culture of reading among students. He noted that the first phase of the initiative saw the development of seven such libraries. The ministry is currently working with six more schools.

Al Hammadi added that the Ministry of Education has allocated a large budget to equip school libraries with the necessary books and reference resources. In order to get the initiative underway at the earliest, the ministry has earmarked funds to purchase books from the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

The Minister noted that reading is included as a full-fledged criterion in the annual operational plans of schools and is linked to specific indicators. Reading is currently included in the annual performance assessment of schools to gauge the impact of their programmes and initiatives.

Annual Reading Festival

In addition, an annual reading festival will be initiated – the first of these will be held in October 2016. The agenda will comprise innovative reading activities, showcase key initiatives to promote reading, honor leading schools that have supported the reading programme. Yet another programme will be launched to select the best school, team, and family that reads as part of the ‘UAE Reads’ initiative.

Drawing the participation of students, educators and members of the community, reading ambassadors have been identified in each school. A special corner will be dedicated for reading in schools as part of a reading club initiative.

Furthermore, the ‘Aqdar Writing’ initiative has been launched in cooperation with the ‘Aqdar Writing’ programme to train 50 writers annually - including students and teachers – who will become authors and contribute to the local literary landscape. A special page on the ministry’s website (Kashkool) has also been created to provide updates about the UAE Reading Year. The culture of reading will be seamlessly integrated into the ministry’s annual agenda and will highlight school events and best international practices with regard to reading.

He elaborated on the ministry’s broader goal to enhance the skills of teachers and library supervisors through workshops and training sessions. Voluntary reading will be allocated in schools and linked to the fourth objective of the teachers’ annual performance document. He also factored in a suggestion to launch a diploma in library management for those keen to work in school libraries as dedicated librarians.

In addition, the Minister spoke about conducting community partnerships with varied entities to support reading projects. 

Abdul Rahman bin Mohammed Al Owais, Minister of Health and Prevention; Hussain  explained during his address that the mental capacity of a child forms between birth and the age of three, in which time 90% of the final size of the brain forms.

He stressed the importance of communicating with children through this early stage, through reinforcing speech, vocabulary and introducing the basic skills of reading. With this early stage of human development critical in building mental capacity and the fundamental building blocks of mental health, reading in early childhood is considered a public health issue in many countries around the world.

He pointed to the importance of reading to reduce tension by 60% for each 6 minutes of reading. He also pointed out that awareness of reading through doctors is four times more effective from other awareness methods.

Talking about the major projects that will be handled by the Ministry of Health and Prevention within the reading strategy, he referred to the Knowledge Bag project for new born children throughout the UAE, which helps parents to read to children in three age groups: after birth, at the age of two when vaccinating, and at the age of four years during nursery.

He also announced the Family Knowledge Awareness project, which focuses on persuading families of the value of reading from pregnancy for couples starting a family and during visits to the family doctors, through vaccination programmes, as well as by educating visitors to primary health centres, and encouraging individuals to use reading as an effective means to enjoy a healthy life with a reduction in psychological pressures and tensions.

The third project is the Reading for Patients project, with volunteers providing relief and mental engagement for long-term patients in hospitals.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, UAE Minister of State and Chairman of the National Media Council (NMC), said: "In line with our leadership’s direction to make 2016 the year of reading, a national comprehensive plan is being put together with the participation of relevant stakeholders to achieve the desired results. This will facilitate the UAE to enter into a new phase that will consolidate its status as a beacon for creative content, knowledge and thought leadership. Media will serve as a strategic partner in instilling the culture of reading as a key component of the UAE society."

He added: "Under the media programme within the reading strategy, media outlets will be encouraged to promote content that boosts the culture of reading. We are studying a number of initiatives that include assigning leading national personalities as reading ambassadors. For its part, the National Media Council will collaborate with stakeholders to launch a programme that enhances the content and publishing industry in the UAE. Yet another initiative will classify children’s books in Arabic by age and content to make it easier for parents to find appropriate reading material for their young ones. Through such efforts, our aim is to increase the availability of rich content to serve our national goals and consolidate the UAE’s position as a major cultural centre in the region."

Reading - one of the Most Positive Values

Najla Al Awar, Minister of Community Development, confirmed during her participation in the launch of the National Policy for reading that consolidating reading is one of the most positive values that the Ministry of Community Development aims to weave into the fabric of UAE society, and that this requires the involvement of all segments. She also said: "Reading should be for life and all segments of society, this is our message, reading and lifelong learning."

She pointed that the ministry will supervise the volunteer reading project, and will work on creating a base for volunteers from both the educational system graduates, housewives and retirees, and even workers who are interested in community service in their spare time in order to carry out a real role in spreading reading for all.

She also pointed out that the ministry will coordinate with institutions and companies wishing to promote their CSR to participate in the organization of major ongoing initiatives for volunteer reading, including reading in incubators and kindergartens to increase linguistic inventory for children, and reading to patients in hospitals to improve their mental state, collective reading and individual for the elderly in neighbourhood councils and centers, and also focus on people with special needs through the provision of more books in Braille, and the promotion of reading activities for them to improve their skills in social communication, mental health and reintegration into society.

Afra Al Sabri confirmed that the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development will play an important role in the development and dissemination of national content and providing it in libraries.

Additionally, the Ministry will provide premium content to support major initiatives with other ministries. The Ministry will also focus on the development of reading in government workplaces, providing digital content to employees and promoting reading and research skills in the workplace.

She said: "Public Libraries are considered the pillars of any national policy or strategy to consolidate reading and meet the needs of different groups outside of the educational system and after working hours, that’s why we set our eyes in the national strategy for reading on turning public libraries and cultural centres to places of entertainment in which we can attract different age groups through providing a fun atmosphere filled with activities and attractive reading content."

She explained that the achievement of this vision will be through three strategic directions; the development of public libraries, providing enriched public reading opportunities and the provision of enhanced reading materials to support other initiatives.

The development programmes and services for public libraries and set a new concept of public libraries as centres of service and entertainment through the development of their systems and the adjustment of their working hours to fit with the break periods of individuals and families in the UAE, as well as to modernise and diversify the content to suit all community groups, provide activities and programmes aimed at young children, youth and adults that include reading, innovation, competition and honor and thrill, along with the announcement of libraries’ activities and inform the community of them.

The second direction is the promotion of book cafes through the establishment of branches of public libraries in shopping malls, the main family destination in the UAE. These would contain a section for children that includes interesting books, games, and reading corners.

Promote Reading in Cafes

Additionally, the Ministry will work to promote reading in cafes in malls in coordination with the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Economy and local departments.

The third direction is to provide reading materials required by the strategic projects organised by other entities to support reading, especially those targeted at specific groups, such as children from birth to 3 years and older readers who are facing challenges in reading. In this context, she stated, "Yesterday we launched the digital library in order to provide digital books on various topics for all members of society. We will have a plan to launch a mobile library which will ensure the arrival of books to those who can’t visit public libraries such as people with special needs, new mothers and housewives."

The Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development will play a key role alongside the National Media Council in reviewing content and publishing policy towards the enrichment of intellectual production in the UAE and to increase the number of books that are released in the state from approximately 400 to 4,000 books by 2026. The ministry will launch a "Preparing Young Authors" project in cooperation with the concerned authorities where there will be training courses in writing, launching of writing contests and publishing of the best winning books.

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