A book at bedtime and stories that don’t patronise: how to transform children’s literature

Amro Abu-Hmaidan, CEO of ed-tech startup Asafeer Education Technologies, describes how a digital literacy platform might alleviate reading pressures at school, as well as champion Arabic language learning

“At Asafeer, we believe in the value of literacy in changing lives,” says Amro Abu-Hmaidan. The CEO and father of two experienced his own transformative moment at a relatively late stage in life.

“I was raised in an educated household – my father is a surgeon, my mother a doctor – and we valued education as a household, but I didn’t really pick up a reading habit until I was 25 years old,” he says.

For his own children, he wanted their transformation to arrive earlier. Uninspired by what he saw in their schools: where the majority of books were in English and there was little or no way of knowing whether a child had finished their at-home reading, Hmaidan decided to create a digital library and platform, 3asafeer.com

Asafeer comprises of a smart digital library with original Arabic content, put together by a virtual team of authors who send in stories via Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the US, with illustrators helping to bring the story to life.

Hmaidan earmarks one good example being ‘The Caramel Dragon’, where three knights travel to a faraway land to retrieve a magic lollipop, their test being not to eat candy coming out of the walls of a cave.

The book, says Hmaidan, allows children to gently pick up the values of self-discipline and restraint whilst still remaining a compelling tale.

“There is a common refrain that children in the Arab region don’t read,” he says. “But our platform dispels that notion – in the last 30 days, we had over 1,330,000 stories read on the platform, which makes up over 60,000 hours of reading.”

The future is for digital – at least in schools

Amro Abu-Hmaidan, CEO, Asafeer Education Technologies

The problem, he says, is the content. “A lot of Arabic literature is about religion or politics, and nothing talks about life as it is now, science, how to be happy… anything like that. We want to produce literature that encourages kids to dream about the world, to explore. And be more curious. Instead of the common rhetoric in children’s’ books, which is be a good boy, listen to your mum and dad, and that’s it.”

The app can track children’s reading and report it to their teachers, who can then communicate with either the students themselves or their parents and carefully monitor their progress.

“The stories that we have are all ranked according to a classification system, so kids can progress through texts that are suitable for their own level,” he comments.

Reading comprehension is tracked using multiple question testing, and worksheets that use the same vocabulary used in the story.

“Once we went into schools around the region, we found that it wasn’t just the kids that need help; the teachers also need training,” he says.

He describes a cycle in which nice facilities are prioritised over teacher capability, leading to children who are left behind when it comes to true literacy.

“Usually when schools send books with kids back home, most guess that the children haven’t read the stories, judging roughly from the level of progress. With us, they have all the feedback in seconds – how long they spent reading, how much they comprehended from the text.”

“The future is for digital – at least in schools. You can’t overlook this much added value in analytics and data about what your kids are doing outside of school, and how it affects their performance inside the school,” he adds.

Ultimately, as the Internet becomes omnipresent in a child’s life, the role of Asafeer and its contemporaries will be making sure that education keeps apace with this rapid development.

“We’re pulling out all the stops in order to make this work in real-life; not just have a nice business on the surface,” concludes Hmaidan.

“We just want to reach the kids.”