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Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
Challenges to Building a ‘Knowledge Society’: The Role of Reading in the Development Process
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper will highlight the critical role reading plays in the building of a knowledge-based economy with a particular focus on the UAE. It will begin with a look at the most prevalent theory of reading and then examine current statistics on both regional and local reading habits before exploring the socio-cultural reasons for the given statistics. It will also make recommendations for programs and partnerships to promote reading among UAE youth both in and outside the classroom.

The definition of a ‘knowledge-based’ economy varies with no clear consensus currently available in the literature (Peters, 2001). Sahlberg (2006) indicates that in order to make an economy more competitive, flexibility, creativity, and risk-taking need to be embedded within the entire educational system. Creativity and risk-taking, in particular, need to be promoted at the school level with traditional methods of teaching replaced with more innovative ones. For the most part, examinations in the government high schools – which greatly influence classroom teaching – are not based on the understanding of content or the application of skills but rather on the memorization of content (Ridge, 2011). In order to engage in the academic study needed to lead the UAE to its ultimate goal of a knowledge-based economy, students need to possess the ability to be creative, take risks, and engage in critical thought. Whereas all of these abilities are important, the latter one is easily supported through the act of reading.

Literature in the field of reading theory linked to the traditional view of reading (unrelated to New Literacy Studies) highlights several perspectives on the reading process. Historically, reading was viewed as the simple application of a set of skills. This was referred to as the bottom-up process. This perspective contends that reading is merely the following of a sequence of events: letter to sound to meaning (Gough, 1972). This is in contrast with another developed theory called the top down process (Goodman, 1971). Here meaning is generated by working with the text holistically instead of its minute parts. More recent approaches, however, suggest the process is much more complex than either of these suggestions with the most commonly accepted theory being that of the interactive process (Alderson, 2000). The complexity of what constitutes reading in the interactive process includes such things as syntactic, semantic, orthographic, and lexical knowledge (Rumelhart, 1977). Kintsch and van Dijk (1978) look at the process of reading in a slightly different manner – by dividing up the practice of reading into two categories: micro- processing and macro-processing. Micro-processing is responsible for the generation of a lower-level of understanding – the literal. This relates to the mechanical features of reading such as the parsing of words and sentences. Macro-processing, on the other hand, refers to the processes activated by a reader that bring about a more global understanding of a passage - something which requires a higher level of critical thought.

To engage in and promote this type of higher order thinking, a high level of exposure to literacy is essential. Unfortunately, in the region and in the UAE, reading is not a common pastime. In fact no more than 22% of adults surveyed in a study in the UAE labeled themselves as ‘regular readers’ (Al Yacoub, 2012). Students do not fare any better as – having grown up in a largely oral culture (Swan & Ahmed, 2011) - they find little value or pleasure in the act of reading. A study conducted at one of the country’s many foundation programs revealed that most students read for pleasure only once or twice a week for a maximum of 40 minutes with the most popular choice of reading being newspapers and magazines (Freimuth, 2013). The study also highlighted that the majority of the homes students come from possess no more than fifty books in total – a number further substantiated by an alternative study in the UAE (Ridge & Farah, 2012). This lack of reading culture is due to a variety of reasons – one of which is the prevalence of a strong oral culture (Swan & Ahmed, 2011) which relegates reading into a lower status. This, however, has serious repercussions for the students engaged in academic study who are tasked with achieving UAE’s Vision 2021. Students require not only the ability to read and think critically but also the ability to read at length in order to succeed at their studies and at their future jobs as academics, engineers, and leaders. This paper addresses the gap in regional research literature that links the act of reading to the development of the UAE. It will also highlight different initiatives around the world that promote reading both inside and outside the classroom and make recommendations for similar initiatives for the UAE.

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