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Setting up pavement schools
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 31 - 05 - 2012

Eradicating illiteracy in Egypt is a must, and some are finding innovative ways to make the dream come true, says Mai Samih
A workshop was presented at Cairo University earlier this month by Farida El-Qaei, an Arabic language instructor at the American University in Cairo, in order to help teach the illiterate how to read and write using the "Look and Say" method.
This is normally used to teach children, but El-Qaei has altered it to suit adults, having found over her 23 years of teaching Arabic that traditional teaching methods are sometimes not effective and that the best teaching situations use a one-on-one method teaching one student at a time. The unique thing about her new method is that it is not tied to classrooms, but can instead be used with individual learners on the city's pavements and in the streets.
According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), 28.1 per cent of men are illiterate in Egypt, as are 40.5 per cent of women.
El-Qaei was determined to find a more effective solution to this problem, and her quest really took off after the 25 January Revolution.
"Work at the university was suspended, and all the foreign students left, so I had lots of spare time. Instead of regular classroom teaching, I went to the market to talk to people and to hear their reactions. The discussions gave me greater insights into their problems, and I decided to teach them how to read and write. I started with one student, then another joined, and finally I had six students," she says.
El-Qaei now meets with the students twice a week for about 45 minutes to an hour. She uses the first things that come to hand as teaching equipment for her makeshift school. Every word studied is written on two separate cards, El-Qaei keeping one and the student keeping the other. Each word is then repeated in such a way that the student begins to see how the word is spelt, and a matching exercise is then done by arranging the cards on a white piece of paper on the ground.
Simple writing exercises consisting of drawing horizontal and vertical lines and other shapes like circles and semi-circles eventually give way to writing letters. "It takes 28 days for a student to know how to write all the letters," El-Qaei says, and these early exercises are followed by spelling drills in which the students are asked to guess what the letter they have just heard looks like, then being asked to count the letters in each word.
These exercises are followed by others, like playing dominos with the letters. The whole process is repeated many times, and by this point the students are able to read simple newspaper headlines and even easier pages of text. "You have to choose the right pages to read carefully, as some are far too difficult at this early stage. Always look for the most interesting pages," El-Qaei advises.
According to El-Qaei, very few such students are 100 per cent illiterate, as in most cases they dropped out of school for one reason or another. Therefore, she is able to build on the knowledge they already have. Often, the students are soon able to make sense of passages written by writers such as Alaa El-Aswani or Omar Taher, as their pieces use language that is similar to the vernacular. "I just give them the keys. They already have a lot of the know-how," El-Qaei adds.
El-Qaei starts her lessons by asking the students what they hope to achieve. "You have to try to educate people without dictating your own ideas to them. They talk about many topics, and then they read about them in the papers and formulate their own opinions and ask me for mine. We may disagree about some issues, like the elections, but we always have a discussion." This fosters critical thinking, a crucial aspect of any form of education.
El-Qaei has previously held a workshop on her teaching methods at Ain Shams University in Cairo, and she is looking forward to finding more students, as well as to forming a team of student teaching assistants willing to teach in the summer holidays.
There are certain considerations a teacher should bear in mind when teaching these students, El-Qaei says. "Psychologically speaking, the people we are teaching don't want to be treated like illiterates. They have to be helped while they struggle to read and write. If not, teaching them is impossible. People should be patient."
Lastly, one problem El-Qaei has come up against is that she is not able to give her students a certificate recognising all their hard work. Her work costs nothing, apart from the teacher's time. As a result, she would like the government to assist by giving her "space to teach in, spreading the word so that more illiterate people can get educated."


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