June 21, 2022
Room to Read envisions a world in which all children can pursue a quality education that enables them to reach their full potential and contribute to their community and the world. We design our programs under the guiding principle that all children are entitled to education as a fundamental human right. Yet, according to UNICEF, one out of every five children in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is not in school.
Neighboring Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, Jordan sits at the crossroads of a region that has experienced generations of conflict, yet the country has become, for many, a refuge. Despite having one of the smallest economies in the Middle East, Jordan has opened its doors to millions uprooted by conflict and civil unrest. As a result, Jordan’s population has ballooned in recent decades. In 1948, thousands of Palestinians sought refuge in Jordan following the Israeli declaration of independence and the ensuing Arab-Israeli War. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Jordan became home to Lebanese fleeing a decades-long civil war, and to Iraqis fleeing the 1991 Gulf War. And since 2011, an estimated 660,000-plus Syrians have fled their own devastating civil war, seeking refuge in Jordan. Roughly 220,000 Syrian refugees are school-aged children.
The Jordanian Ministry of Education has since been responding to a national education crisis, working to educate more than half a million more students than the country is equipped to manage. One primary concern among educators and some publishers in the region is the limited range of quality reading materials available to young readers. Most available books come with dense text, making them overly challenging and thus hindering a young student’s ability to develop foundational literacy skills and a love of reading. Many titles are also translated from English or Chinese, offering storylines that bear little resemblance to regional cultures. While some publishers are making great efforts to develop child-friendly books with local authors and illustrators, these titles are often too expensive for families living in low-income and refugee communities. Jordanian publishers have long struggled to educate caregivers on the importance of child-friendly books, and local governments have not historically invested funds in children’s literature. The resulting low print runs of high-quality titles — many of them international award winners — can be disheartening and economically challenging for those publishers seeking to close gaps in available children’s books.
Even within schools, children in Jordan face a limited range of books. Many Jordanian public schools do not have a library or child-friendly reading space. The school libraries that do exist are often unwelcoming for children, commonly stocked with old and unattractive books. Many also lack a check-out system — the result of a regulation that holds librarians responsible for any missing books — and thus children have few, if any, opportunities to take books home or to other reading spaces.
This limited access to a relevant variety of books is compounded by the fact that Jordanian schools do not current offer an established library period where students have focused reading time. Teachers also lack training and support in library management and literacy instruction, making it nearly impossible to build foundational literacy skills alongside common library practices, like story read alouds, in the early grades.
Room to Read's Beginnings in Jordan
Room to Read began working in the Middle East with a literacy project in Jordan in 2017. With support from Dubai Cares, the project partnered with local children’s book publishers to build skills in their talent pool and develop colorful storybooks in Arabic. Through a year-long partnership with Jordanian authors, illustrators, editors and art directors, Room to Read supported the creation of a new collection of 20 original children’s books in Arabic — telling stories of home, of fitting in and of friendship in the Middle East. More than 600,000 copies of the collection were distributed across government primary schools, informal schools, refugee camps and community centers, and later added to Room to Read’s digital library, Literacy Cloud.org.
Following this initial project, Room to Read was selected to lead the development of 12 new storybooks, along with literacy worksheets for Sesame Street's Ahlan Simsim, or “Welcome Sesame” in Arabic. Over a nine-month period, our literacy team led writers' and illustrators' workshops to produce the digital files of these 12 storybooks. Sesame Street’s Ahlan Simsim team, as part of a separate joint, five-year initiative between the nonprofit organizations Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee, which serves the needs of children across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, later printed and distributed these titles in the region. Ahlan Simsim offers a warm and joyful welcome to early learning for young children across the Middle East, especially those affected by displacement, and provides children and their caregivers with training materials on early childhood education, including literacy, numeracy and socioemotional skills.
Ideal Book Collection
Room to Read uses what we call an Ideal Book Collection (IBC) tool to help determine the minimum number of books and type of books that will be most effective in promoting a habit and love of reading in a school. Developing an IBC begins with an in-depth discussion of children’s book development needs in the local context with key stakeholders, including the Ministry of Education and local educators, as well as a comprehensive review of a large sample of children’s books available in the local market. The tool then identifies where gaps in children’s storybooks exist in the marketplace in terms of quality, variety and reading skill level. This information is vital to publishers and to governments when developing new storybook titles to support early literacy, and to schools when requesting book donations or procuring new books for a school library.
In 2020, Room to Read examined available Arabic language children’s books yet again and found that a Jordanian IBC was needed to understand what types of books were most needed in the country. In collaboration with the Queen Rania Foundation and in partnership with local publishers, editors and the Jordanian Ministry of Education, Room to Read helped review 900 books through an IBC workshop. The evaluation of these books ultimately resulted in a list of recommended titles for school libraries across the country and helped identify remaining gaps in local children’s books in the local market.
To begin addressing these gaps, Room to Read worked with a committee of translators, editors and the Jordanian Ministry of Education to select titles from Room to Read’s global publishing program that would be appropriate to adapt for Jordanian primary schools. In total, 40 Room to Read titles were translated into Arabic and adapted with local authors and translators, printed into 6,500 sets and distributed across the 3,000 primary schools in Jordan. These 40 titles are now available on Literacy Cloud.org, here.
What Comes Next: Establishing New Public School Libraries
Shortly after our initial 2017 project in Jordan, we embarked on a process to determine what’s next for Room to Read in MENA. We analyzed qualitative research and data, consulted with key education stakeholders in the region, and worked with our own literacy and girls’ education experts to understand how Room to Read can provide the greatest support.
Based on a combination of factors, including need, government readiness and language alignment, we identified Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan as countries where we are best poised to make a difference in the lives of children. In addition to determining geographic focus, this process helped us identify key ways that we can contribute to existing literacy development efforts in the region. A few of our priorities include teacher trainings in early grade literacy instruction, ongoing book publishing in partnership with local publishers and technical assistance to support the development of new school libraries — all components of Room to Read's comprehensive Literacy Program.
Earlier this year, in collaboration with the Queen Rania Foundation, our team began developing the materials and systems needed to adapt the Room to Read library model for Modern Standard Arabic instruction. With roughly 3,000 public primary schools in Jordan, each educating 200 to 900 children and few offering child-friendly reading spaces, the need for school libraries is great. Our goal is to establish 50 pilot libraries in Jordanian public schools by 2024, creating a Modern Standard Arabic library model that can be transferred to schools in other MENA countries, like Lebanon and Egypt, in the process. Over the years, we will provide these schools with the resources needed to create a child-friendly learning space; enlist the local community to co-invest to ensure long-term sustainability of the new libraries; and offer trainings to educators on how to set up and manage school libraries and use the space to foster a habit of reading. After the libraries have been established, we will provide ongoing monitoring and support.
In the long-term, our goal is for every child to have access to the quality education they deserve, and we know that literacy is the foundation for all other learning throughout their lives. Stay tuned for more about this exciting initiative in the months ahead!