In an age when digital platforms seem to have taken precedence over any other means of communication, We Love Reading tries to create an innate love for reading through tangible, human connection.
This article is written by Aalia Mehreen Ahmed
‘‘One Saturday morning in February 2006, I carried a bag of children’s books across the road to my local mosque in Amman,” says Dr. Rana Dajjani, describing how the foundations for the Jordan-based We Love Reading (WLR) were laid many years ago in her neighborhood. “I donned a traditional folklore dress and a silly hat, and spent an hour reading stories to the two dozen children gathered around.’’ The mosque’s imam advertised the story session during Friday prayers the following week, which led to 50 children attending her next reading. With a small grant from the mosque, and some personal savings, she purchased a collection of books for her first library. ‘‘I read the stories in costume and with puppets, and read three books before offering to lend each child a book to take home,” recalls Dr. Dajjani. “Some of these children had never had a children’s book in their home.’’
At its very core, WLR has a very pure and honest goal– to inculcate in children the idea of reading for fun. In an age when digital platforms seem to have taken precedence over any other means of communication, Dr. Dajjani is quick to point out that an innate love for reading can only be fostered through tangible, human connection. ‘‘We have evolved as a species to survive on social interaction,” she says. “Human interaction. This is how our brain develops. There is no alternative to that experience for a healthy brain development.’’ A molecular biologist by profession, Dr. Dajjani firmly believes that reading with a parent creates a sense of love, care, and security in a child. “If a child is given a choice between an online game or an online book, and had they have never been read to by a parent, they will choose the online game,” she notes.
This sentiment explains a great deal about why this entrepreneurial company does not use apps or any other online platforms to reach out to the children they target, who are usually up to 10 years of age. WLR’s services are not digitized; they’re human and palpable. The entire functioning of WLR is based on recruiting and training adults and youth from local communities –known as WLR Ambassadors– to provide read-aloud sessions for local children in safe, public spaces. “Each year, WLR volunteers read to tens of thousands of children in public parks, community centers, mosques and other faith-based settings, nurseries, refugee camps, and other locales,” Dr. Dajjani says. But this is not to say that Dr. Dajjani and her team dismiss the idea of any use of technology. The vast, global network of WLR Ambassadors stay connected through the Global Ambassadors Network, which is the enterprise’s own user-friendly mobile application.
Through this, the volunteers manage trainings, monitor and document reading sessions for evaluative purposes, and generate impact reports. This means that while creating community-based reading groups across the globe through their reading sessions, WLR is also fostering a sense of community among their volunteers through efficient digital networking. No matter where in the world, a WLR ambassador will always be connected to, and represent, the WLR family. “The ‘secret sauce’ in the WLR model is our ability to motivate people, instilling a sense of agency, hope, and resilience,” says Dr. Dajjani. As it turns out, a good balance of human touch and technological innovations is the recipe for WLR’s success. However, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a particular hurdle for WLR in fulfilling its mission. The increasing importance of social distancing means the intimately set reading sessions can no longer take place in the various localities spanning the globe. Children are stuck at home, and they have extra time on their hands. When asked about how the company is adapting to such an unprecedented turn of events, Dr. Dajjani said that they have launched online courses in both Arabic and English on their website.
However, the coronavirus pandemic isn’t the first unforeseen crisis in Jordan. In recent years, the country has witnessed a massive influx of refugees, many of whom are children who no longer go to school. WLR has played its part in helping such underprivileged kids as well. “(Refugee) children usually suffer and loose years of schooling, and many, even when sent back, have lost interest in studying,” says Dr. Dajjani. “WLR is a place that strives to keep the children engaged with reading in a fun way.” In April 2019, The New York Times ran an opinion piece applauding WLR’s success in working with refugee children. The provision of psychosocial support via read-aloud sessions, building of resilience to mitigate toxic stress spurred by traumatic experiences, helping children vocalize their anxieties after reading stories about related situations (such as the fear of sudden noises), and parent-child bonding formed through the pleasures of reading aloud together are among the main beneficial effects mentioned in the article.
The WLR program is hosted by Taghyeer, an independent non-profit organization based in Jordan, and its business model is seemingly three-tiered. First, it licenses its program to private schools, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and community-based and international organizations that work towards the improvement of education, literacy, psychosocial health, and early childhood development. Using this annual license, WLR provides trainings, storybooks, and other resources, while also keeping a tab on the read-aloud sessions using their data management platform. WLR also obtains funding from corporate firms and government embassies to conduct trainings and create new storybooks. Next, it generates income through the sales of their books at bookstores. This particular revenue stream allows for its reading circles started in areas where people are unable to afford training and purchase tools.
It’s interesting to observe WLR’s journey over the years. It all started as an epiphany of sorts in a local neighborhood. Today, there are WLR ambassadors in 55 countries across the world who continue to conduct read-aloud sessions in their respective localities and neighborhoods. When asked for tips she can give other entrepreneurs, Dr. Dajjani says, “It takes patience, persistence and a deep-rooted belief that you will succeed. Don’t give up, and remember that every experience is a learning experience!’’ Experience- that’s the word the WLR model is based around, i.e. to create a fun experience which creates an undying love for reading in children. Their programs are built on scientific research and rigorously evaluated by researchers at leading institutions of higher education, including Brown University, Harvard University, and Yale University. However, WLR doesn’t work in direct collaboration with schools. The work they do largely deals with removing the negative connotations associated with reading that schools and schoolwork may create in the minds of children.
Dr. Dajjani has a fairly realistic outlook on how to change this– instead of focusing on the institutions, they turn their attention instead to the parents. ‘‘This is not easy, and needs a huge commitment from the school administration and teachers, who unfortunately are already overwhelmed,” she says. “That is why WLR focuses on parents to avoid falling into the area of negative connotations. That way, the children fall in love with reading outside of school.’’ Looking toward the long term, when asked about the key areas of literacy that Dr. Dajjani would like to keep seeing improvements in, her answer is succinct. “Illiteracy, meaning learning how to read. Aliteracy, meaning falling in love with reading. And finally, an increase in reading material, creating, and giving out books,” she replies. And with Dr. Dajjani making sure that her enterprise addresses all three of these factors in its mission, it’ll be fascinating to see how WLR continues in its global quest to make reading fun again.