Reading plays a crucial role in children's overall development. It is a highly immersive experience that allows them to use their imagination, and curiosity and makes their minds come alive. However sadly, the Bangladeshi community has not yet established an entirely reader-friendly environment. For a start, many Bangladeshi schools have a very limited number of fictional stories in their curriculum, and in dwelling on or stressing over school pressures, children often do not find the time to pick up books outside of the classrooms. In addition, most bookstores in Dhaka are decorative stationary shops that mainly sell textbooks and a handful of mainstream fiction books. More importantly, the underprivileged children in our community rarely find any opportunity to develop reading habits.
Recognising this issue, Sadia Jafrin and Amina Azad started Grow Your Reader in August 2016. Grow Your Reader is a project that provides underprivileged children access to different kinds of books other than books in their regular curriculum. Both Azad and Jafrin are currently pursuing their Master's degrees in Education and Leadership Development at BRAC University and working as Teach for Bangladesh fellows.
When asked how and why Grow Your Reader was conceived, Azad and Jafrin recall meeting a young boy while having tea outside one day. The boy was reading a short story about a farmer and a king. “He was very excited and engrossed in reading the story. We discussed how it would be great if every child had access to reading different books,” says Jafrin. She also adds that, it is important to nourish the creativity and imagination of children and one of the best ways to do that is to inspire them to read different books. This is why Jafrin and Azad started their project and branch out the availability of books in Dhaka.
With this initiative, these two young women aim to address how stories can be a stepping-stone for academic learning and gathering knowledge. This is because, oftentimes, most students learn by rote, without understanding the subjects. Stories can help students to better understand and enjoy what they are reading, which can in turn help them in learning their school subjects better. Stories also instill social values within young students. “Children's reading habits should be nourished. Reading stories that have meaningful messages can help children grow into great leaders of tomorrow,” says Azad.
Grow Your Reader's first station at Gawair Nabin Government Primary School began with only 216 books in both English and Bangla. Within the first two months of its inception, the response to Grow Your Reader proved to be widely positive, which inspired the founders to broaden their project across the city with four more stations. So far, Grow Your Reader has stations at Gawair Nabin Government Primary School located at Dokkinkhan in Uttara, Amtoli Staff Welfare Government Primary School in Mohakhali, Walkup Government Primary School in Mirpur, Rajmushuri Government Primary School in Dhanmondi, and Mahora School of Performance and Creative Arts in Purbo Jurain, Kadomtoli. They provide books to these stations and people who need them borrow the books from their nearest station for a certain time period. Jafrin and Azad are committed to making a difference to the underserved communities with the help of Grow Your Reader. Predominantly, Grow Your Reader lends books to schools and primary school teachers who can inspire students to read daily. “Currently we have around 2000 readers, most of whom are children who belong to the underserved sectors or low-income neighbourhoods,” explains Azad.
Saud Hussain, a fourth grade teacher at Nurerchala GPS, struggled to find reading materials for his students since his school did not have a library and also because the curriculum books included very few stories, and mainly focused on grammar and writing skills. That is when he came across Grow Your Reader. He believes that Grow Your Reader is widely making a difference in the self-confidence of his students. “Exposure to the storybooks has improved the fluency and vocabulary of my students, especially when it comes to their spoken English. They now ask many questions, which means they are practicing their analytical thinking skills. Reading aids their writing skills as well,” says Hussain. “The Little Red Riding Hood is a particular favourite of my students.” He also explains that he incorporates reading with active participation, role-playing, and dialogues to make things more engaging for his students.
With Grow Your Reader, Jafrin and Azad have surely touched the lives of numerous students. However, on their journey to starting the project, Azad and Jafrin had to overcome a number of hurdles and incidents of sexism. Since they both are women, many people did not take them seriously at all at first, but they did not allow those experiences to hold them back. Instead, Jafrin and Azad went ahead with their project with a greater sense of empowerment and inspiration. They also struggled to address some issues like limited resources and flexibility. At the beginning, purchasing books was expensive for them. In response to that, they ran campaigns on Facebook and requested people to give away second-hand books or make monetary donations to their project. “With the terrific appreciation we received, our biggest challenge now is that, our number of readers is more than our number of books,” explains Jafrin. Now, they are providing e-books to schools that have ICT facilities and the children in these schools have learnt about the new innovations in technology through these e-books and encyclopedias.
Within the next three years, the founders wish to build partnerships with different organisations to spread their mission all over Bangladesh, establish Grow Your Reader stations all over the country, play an integral role in forming libraries in different schools that need them, and familiarise underprivileged children with e-libraries. “We believe that reading can truly help children to grow into knowledgeable and well-rounded individuals. We hope that Grow Your Reader serves as a platform for underprivileged children to become the best versions of themselves,” says Jafrin.