Making literacy fun

Who says spelling tests have to be a boring old chore?


Did you know that research has shown that kids who are involved in fun, academic activities outside of school, generally perform better in class? That’s the thinking behind the year-long, Read Across the Gulf campaign which is being launched by Sylvan Learning in the UAE this month.

This US-based education centre, which is dedicated to improving kids’ literacy, writing and maths skills, is running the campaign for a second time, after the success of the first event last year, which saw Sylvan educators reading to over 6,000 students from kindergarten to grade five in schools across the UAE back in March 2011.

‘The ‘Read Across the Gulf’ campaign was inspired by ‘Read Across America’ which began about 15 years ago,’ explains Jeffrey Smith, Director at Sylvan Learning in Mirdif. ‘The original initiative in the States was inpired by the kids’ author Dr Seuss, beginning with a joint partnership with America’s National Education Association, which saw us go into schools, read to the children and have discussions about different stories that he’d written.’

For Dubai, as well as Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Bahrain and Kuwait, the concept was adapted for general literacy with a selection of classic kids’ reads, and this year, the in-school sessions are being complemented by a fun ‘spelling bee’ in two of Dubai’s malls. ‘Last year’s event was just for one month, and we realized that there’s so many distractions for kids, like computer games or TV, that we need to promote good, wholesome activities to keep our children engaged in literacy, books and reading,’ says Jeffrey. That’s how the spelling challenge came about. ‘We originally partnered with the Arabian Centre, who were already doing some great family activities. The idea is to make sure that all these events are free of charge, and really fun for the kids. After Arabian Centre got involved, and Fun City donated some prizes, we went on to work with schools and got them to send us their spellers who wanted to get involved.’

But if the thought of deadly serious, US-style spelling tournaments is putting you off, the Sylvan Spelling Challenge is all about fun and just getting involved. ‘It really doesn’t matter if kids are good or bad, everyone who gets involved wins a prize and a certificate,’ says Jeffrey, who explains that the theme is in line with Sylvan’s general philosophy of rewarding students for their participation and effort, as well as their achievement.

Over 200 kids from across Dubai participated in the inaugural spell-a-thon, which took place at the end of 2011 and saw kids from grades three to five battling it out to be crowned the winner. The judges say they were particularly impressed by the diversity of the winners in the different categories, with champions from India, the US and the UAE proving their spelling prowess.

This month, the spelling championship is expanding to new Dubai, too, with a competition also being held at Dubai Marina Mall for grades three to five, while the Arabian Centre will be testing the wits of older kids in grades six to eight.

‘Our latest partnership with Dubai Marina Mall really gives all children throughout Dubai, no matter where they live, an opportunity to come and participate in something that’s fun, where they can win prizes and we can promote literacy,’ says Jeffrey.

And, with plans to take the campaign through the rest of 2012 too, it seems this is just the beginning: there’s more events pencilled in, plus a call out to anyone who is interested in getting involved. ‘We’re looking for good community partners who aren’t particularly interested in profits, but just want to help kids and benefit the entire community,’ says Jeffrey. Often it’s just a matter of contributing time – from parent organizations to general community volunteers, they’re looking for people who want to come along and support the kids.

‘By simply pledging to pick up a book,’ adds Jeffrey, ‘children are taking that first step towards a lifelong love of reading, success and learning.’
Sylvan Learning is located in Al Barsha (04 434 5400) and Mirdif (04 236 2227). For more information about their education programmes, and the Read Across the Gulf campaign, visit

Join the challenge

Dubai Marina Mall
Grades 3 to 5 (Year 4 to 6)
Heats: February 10, 11, 17, 18, 2pm-4pm
Championship round: February 24

Arabian Centre
Grades 6-8 (Year 7-9)
Heats: February 10, 11, 17, 18, 7pm-9pm
Championship round: February 24, 6pm-9pm

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