Jamati reading programmes promote critical thinking in children

Across the United States and Canada, year-round programmes in various Jamatkhanas encourage critical thinking and nurture a love of reading among children. In celebration of Reading Month, TheIsmaili.org is also pleased to highlight a number of web-based tools and resources to help parents enhance their children’s literacy.

“Reading aloud to children has been called the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for success in reading,” says Dr Bonnie Armbruster in the book, A Child Becomes a Reader. “Reading aloud, with children participating actively, helps children learn new words, learn more about the world, learn about written language, and see the connection between words that are spoken and words that are written.”

There are several programmes in the Ismaili Muslim community designed to bridge that connection in children and inspire them to develop a lifelong love of reading.

Laila Gilani reading to her youngest son, Rayan. Photo: Courtesy of Laila Gilani
Laila Gilani reading to her youngest son, Rayan. Courtesy of Laila Gilani

Summer is an exciting time for young Ismailis across the United States, and being on vacation is not the only reason. Every year the EXCITE! programme is conducted at various Jamatkhanas by the Aga Khan Education Board (AKEB) for the USA, encouraging youth in grades 1–8 to utilise the down time as an opportunity to enhance their critical thinking and reading skills. The programme will celebrate its tenth anniversary this year.

“The EXCITE! programme provides students an enrichment activity in the summer months when many students are removed from an academic environment,” says Sophia Lalani, member of AKEB USA. “The content includes situations involving the work of the Aga Khan Development Network, and exposes participants to the work of the Imamat institutions all over the world.”

In 2009, EXCITE! implemented a new session aimed at educating parents about the importance of critical thinking, allowing them to take the tools from the workshop and use them at home with their children.

The development of critical thinking and analytical skills allows children to logically comprehend complex concepts and solve problems in a disciplined manner. It also helps them form purposeful and reflective judgement in response to observations and experiences. Such thinking sharpens the mind and leads to innovation and creativity.

Laila Gilani and her elder son, Mazzaum, talk about a book that he has just read. Photo: Courtesy of Laila Gilani
Laila Gilani and her elder son, Mazzaum, talk about a book that he has just read. Courtesy of Laila Gilani

Laila Gilani, who lives in Texas and is mother to 2-year-old Rayan and 11-year-old Muazzam, has seen her children turn into habitual readers because of regular read-aloud activities. “At first, I used to read to my children but eventually they started reading on their own and even the younger one began identifying pictures in the books,” she says.

In Canada, the Reading Buddies programme is a yearlong initiative that was launched in Calgary in 2003. The target group is children aged 5-10. “Reading Buddies has been successful in complementing the secular education of students,” says Zahra Peerani, a member of AKEB Canada who is responsible for early childhood, primary and parenting programmes. “The programme is held once a week and is conducted with a ratio of one mentor per child.”

Similarly, the Story Telling Program in Ontario is another year-round programme that serves children, aged 4–8 years in 23 jamatkhanas across Ontario. The objective of the initiative is to cultivate a love of reading in young children and improve their concentration skills, while reinforcing cultural morals and values through reading various types of literature.

“Each month a different theme is assigned,” says Al-Karim Jaffer, an ITREB Ontario board member responsible for libraries and literature. “The theme is usually based on any significant event occurring that month. For example, for the month of October, the theme was ‘thank you' based on Thanksgiving, and in November, the theme was ‘sacrifice' based on Eid al-Adha and Remembrance Day.”

Students at the Learning Center for Parents and Children programme, together with their teacher Munira Sadruddin and her assistant Sarah Ali. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Ali
Students at the Learning Center for Parents and Children programme, together with their teacher Munira Sadruddin and her assistant Sarah Ali. Courtesy of Sarah Ali

There are a number of programmes for the preschool children as well. Research shows that high-quality preschool experiences can enhance later academic competence. Reading further helps children develop into critical thinkers with greater self-esteem.

In the United States, an early childhood development community programme called Learning Center for Parents and Children (LCPC) is conducted once a week with children aged 3–5 who are accompanied by at least one of their parents. Reading is an integral part of LCPC, which uses a Montessori-based approach to various subjects.

Montessori methods generally favour fostering cooperation and collaboration among children rather than competition, and allow for small group instruction. One principle that is applied to the LCPC programme is a learning process that teaches the child to progress from an informative statement to a question requiring independent observation and interpretation. (For example, the teacher starts by making an informative statement: “this is black.” The teacher later asks the student, “is this black?” The last step is questioning the student more generally: “what is it?”)

Another programme is PIAR (Positive, Informed, Active and Regular), which targets parents of newborns to 3-year-olds. The programme is aimed at helping them to recognise the needs of their children at various stages. PIAR teaches them to introduce developmentally appropriate activities – including reading – to strengthen their emotional, physical and cognitive development.

Guides and resources for parents

Reading Rockets
A selection of resources for parents to improve the reading achievement of their children and help them become better readers. Includes videos, podcasts and free guides.

Reading Rockets: Reading Guides
Free print guides by Reading Rockets created for parents, teachers, and others who want to improve the reading achievement of children.

Literacy Begins at Home: Teach them to Read
Checklists developed by the US National Institute of Literacy for parents to teach children to read at various levels: toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children.

A Child Becomes a Reader I: Birth to Preschool
Developed by the Partnership for Reading, this free booklet summarises the most important research findings, defines important terms, and lists reading skills that kids at different ages are developing.

A Child Becomes a Reader II: Kindergarten through Grade Three
Developed by the Partnership for Reading, this free booklet offers advice for parents of children from grades K-3 on how to support reading development at home and how to recognise effective instruction in their children's classrooms.

School-Home Links (SHL) Reading Kits
Developed by the US Department of Education, the School-Home Links (SHL) Reading Kits are a collection of research-based activities designed to help families reinforce the reading and language arts skills that their children are learning at school.

Big Dreams: A Family Book about Reading
A family booklet about reading aimed at parents of children in preschool through third grade. The simple text provides ideas for parents of all literacy skill levels to read with their children and find lessons for reading in everyday activities.

Helping Your Child Become a Reader
Developed by the US Department of Education, this 60-page booklet features dozens of fun activities parents can use to build the language skills of young children from birth to age 6. It has a reading checklist, typical language accomplishments for different age groups, and resources for children with reading problems or learning disabilities.

Get Ready to Read
A US-based national campaign to build the early literacy skills of preschool children. The campaign brings all kinds of resources – including a screening tool and skill-building activities to parents and early childhood teachers and caregivers for helping prepare children to learn to read and write.

What Children Like in Books
A handy guide from Reach Out and Read National Center on choosing age-appropriate books for your children.

Resources for Children – Helping Your Child Become a Reader
A sampling of books, computer programmes, and websites from the US Department of Education that you and your child can enjoy together.

Scholastic Video Demos: Read Aloud with Your Child
Watch these videos that offer age-by-age tips on how best to capture your child's attention when reading aloud.

Reading Aloud
Information on reading aloud to your children by Reading is Fundamental.

For a comprehensive list of other reading guides, please visit Reading Rockets website at http://www.readingrockets.org/guides/other

Fun Online Reading Activities for Children

A learning-through-play site for young children to develop phonics skills and learn to read early in life. The site has free activities by various levels designed to challenge not only toddlers but very well-versed readers.

Scholastic BookFlix is a subscription-based online literacy website that pairs classic video storybooks with related nonfiction eBooks to build a love of reading and learning. (Free trial available.)