Kalamna Phonics for Young Readers: ‘It Was Simply a Revelation’

Each Tuesday of #WorldKidLit Month, we’ll look at a different aspect of literature for children for young readers in Arabic.

This week, we talk to Saussan Khalil, founder, director, and teacher at Kalamna — iStudy’s winner of “Best Arabic Language Courses in the United Kingdom” — and guiding force behind the new, groundbreaking “Kalamna Phonics” book series.

Who have you imagined as the target audience? Will these be made available in print form for libraries and school use? 

More at kalamna.org.

Saussan Khalil: We are based in the UK, and so the target audience is primarily Arabic-speaking families living outside of the Arabic-speaking world, although we are finding demand from within the Arab world as well! We are also getting a lot of interest from schools and nurseries both inside the Arab world and outside it.

After teaching online for over a year now, we realized an electronic version would be really valuable to all those schools and families learning online at the moment. We are also planning to launch a print version with a well-known publisher serve the ME market but as you know print takes time! 

How did the project begin? Can you explain some of the background work that goes into creating a leveled reading series? What’s new about this series? For instance, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a leveled reading series in Arabic before that focuses on sounds separate and blended, and which has simple questions for instance about how a و can function differently in different words?

SK: The project began a few years ago actually, with the inception of the idea for developing an Arabic phonics program. I had been teaching at Kalamna for a couple of years, and we had covered the alphabet, but the children were still struggling to blend the sounds into words. I had an epiphany the day I held up a flashcard with the word أسد and asked the children to read it and they confidently said, “alif, seen, daal!” It was at that point that I realized the influence of the phonics method that the children had used in their mainstream schools to learn English meant that the sight reading method used for Arabic just wouldn’t cut it — I would essentially have to reteach them to read using a completely different method to the one they were used to, so I decided to change my method and adapt to what they know instead.

Since that day, I studied and researched the phonics method to understand it and try to apply it to Arabic — and I mean really apply it, by distilling the essence of it and working out how it could apply to Arabic, and the result was that the Kalamna Phonics™ method was born! Slowly but surely I tested every sound and every word at every stage in the classroom with the children; after suffering through the old method and getting no results, I was amazed at the speed with which the children started picking things up and reading Arabic! It was simply a revelation, and I kept going with it until we had covered the entire spectrum of Arabic sounds that would allow them to read the script with confidence.

The problem I then encountered was that although they could read the script with confidence using flashcards and simple phrases I created for the classroom, there were no books that they could read at this stage

Saussan Khalil, Kalamna

The problem I then encountered was that although they could read the script with confidence using flashcards and simple phrases I created for the classroom, there were no books that they could read at this stage. The few graded readers I could find used highly complex fus7a conventions like i3rab endings, unfamiliar vocabulary and the introductions of the sounds themselves was not gradual, i.e. they relied on the traditional sight reading method where readers are expected to read the entire spectrum of Arabic sounds, including highly complex ones like the hamza. So it was then that I decided the next challenge would be to create a set of graded readers that would introduce the sounds gradually, following the phonics system I had developed. 

As a linguist, creating the phonics system itself was a challenge but something I felt confident that I could attempt — dividing first the language into sounds rather than letters, then grouping the sounds to make words and taking into account my particular area of expertise and the subject of my doctoral research and forthcoming academic book, which is Arabic writing in 3ammiyah and the use of so called “mixed” writing, i.e. that which includes both 3ammiyah and fus7a, so I felt well placed to select the vast and yet too often overlooked shared sounds and vocabulary between fus7a and 3ammiyah.

My experience teaching Arabic as a foreign language at Cambridge University was immensely useful too. When it came to creating the graded readers though, I knew I wasn’t a children’s book author and that all the linguistic knowledge in the world wouldn’t necessary translate into engaging books for children to read. I envisioned top-quality books written and illustrated by top authors and illustrators. For this, I applied to my university, Cambridge University, and was fortunate enough to receive a Cambridge University Arts & Humanities Impact Fund award in order to fund the project and create the readers. My partner Rehab Bassam and I approached some talented authors and illustrators that I admire and respect very much — Hadil Ghoneim, Manar Hazzaa, Sohila Khaled and Mai Amr, and I was humbled by their enthusiasm for the project. I had to train the authors in the phonics method first and give them the parameters for each level, and they were tasked with creating engaging stories within these — incredibly tight! — restrictions. I was blown away with their creativity and ingenuity, and the sheer talent of the illustrators who brought the books to life with their wonderful illustrations.

What’s the role of flashcards (pedagogically and otherwise)?

SK: The flashcards embody the Kalamna Phonics™ method, and it’s the tool to achieving the reading proficiency needed at each level in order to read the books with confidence. That is not to say that the books can’t be read on their own, but in the absence of the widespread use of the phonics method in Arabic teaching, I wasn’t confident that the books alone would be as effective if they were used as an aid with the traditional sight-reading method. So this is my way of introducing the phonics method in the absence of established curricula for it. They are also the original flashcards I used from the beginning in my classes, so I know they work from practice. They have not been newly created for the toolkit, they are our own tried and tested Kalamna flashcards that are still used by our teachers in our classes today.

How did you decide on your writers and illustrators? We are huge Sohila Khaled and Rehab Bassam fans here at ArabLit, and work by both appeared in our Summer 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly. And of course the multi-award-winning Hadil Ghoneim as well!

SK: My partner Rehab Bassam who heads the Kalamna Newcastle franchise and was the project manager on this project recommended the illustrators to me, and I’m so glad she did! I have admired Sohila’s work for a long time and working with Mai I have been massively impressed with her talent and creativity and now I’m a huge fan of hers as well! The writers I have also admired for a long time — I love how Manar cleverly uses the shared vocabulary and structures between fus7a and 3ammiyah in all her children’s books and I knew this is exactly what I wanted for the readers, so I had her earmarked for the project from the start and approached her early on. I had equally admired Hadil’s work and knew she was a hugely successful and accomplished children’s author but I hadn’t worked with her before this project and wasn’t sure if my little project would be of any interest to her — it seemed like a distant dream to have her on board! Luckily Rehab encouraged me to approach her, and I was thrilled when I did and found her extremely enthusiastic and positive about the project. I felt my dream team was complete at that point! And I feel extremely fortunate to have worked with them and their enthusiasm for the project was extremely humbling! 

In one of the early books, فيل شاف, there’s a wonderful rhythmic quality and I love how you hyphenated أرا – جوز, just because of the rhythm. But . . . what’s the pedagogical reason for it? To help the young reader work in smaller chunks? 

SK: Yes absolutely! We wanted a twist at the end, a slight challenge, and felt this was just right at this level when broken down into smaller chunks.

What next? Will you continue to build out more books? Work with kids and caregivers to see the response? 

SK: We definitely want to build out more books — both more at each level and then more challenging books at the top level and beyond to gradually introduce more and more fus7a, which we are already doing in the classroom and need the readers to complement this. I think in future we hope to work more with publishers who would be willing to take this project on and expand the series while staying true to the original vision and phonics approach. 

We are already working with kids and carers to see the response – in addition to using the flashcards in our classes, we evaluated the books based on kids’ feedback in 1:1 reading sessions as part of the academic project and made changes based on their feedback so they are truly research and evidence based books. We want to reach out to as many people as possible and invite anyone who has purchased the toolkit to reach out and send us their feedback and comments. We are learning all the time and constantly adapting and evolving the material, nothing is set in stone!

What are the similarities and differences between the language & literature needs of young Arab readers in the diaspora and those in Arabic-speaking countries?

SK: That’s a great question! I think they are often viewed in opposition to each other when really there are many similarities too. Both need modern and engaging language resources and literature that takes into account the learning stages of young readers, which includes their level of comfort with and mastery of fus7a, and that was the main driver for creating the toolkit.

In such a globalised world cultural differences are shrinking and children in different countries are watching the same TV or internet programmes and reading similar books, and more and more in Arabic-speaking countries these are happening in foreign languages like English, so their needs in terms of Arabic are becoming similar to children in the diaspora. I get approached by families in the Arabic-speaking world complaining of the struggle to get their kids to speak in Arabic, let alone read and write in it – or to find good quality, relevant, engaging, age-appropriate and language-appropriate literature for them to read as they are learning or after they have learnt the script.

With the advent of the internet and the predominance of it in young readers’ lives, we are competing with the audiovisual as a medium on a whole other scale and then foreign language media and literature on top. Young people’s exposure now to fus7a especially in writing feels minimal and so I loved the model adopted by Rania Hussein Amin and Dar El Shorouk recently of publishing to YA novels in two versions – fus7a and 3ammiyah. It shows there is space for both and giving young readers more choice is so empowering for them. It really is the way forward in my view.

Do you have a list of books you use in the Kalamna classrooms, outside your own? On your website, I saw a photo of a Walid Taher alphabet book that I love & the wonderful أ خ خ خ.

SK: Absolutely! We have a library of books and DVDs at Kalamna that we use in our classes and loan to our students on a weekly basis to read at home and return the following week. We have been running for over six years now and just this past year we have produced our own books so we rely heavily on books by others like Walid Taher, Rania Hussein Amin, Hadil Ghoneim, Manar Hazzaa, Taghreed Najjar, Riham Shendy and many others. I have to say أ خ خ خ is an absolute favourite!

Are the Kalamna masterclasses available remotely, or only for parents / caregivers in the UK? What sorts of things (without giving it away) does a parent or caregiver learn in the masterclass?

Since the pandemic we have been running all the masterclasses online, like our classes. We have had attendees from all over the UK, Europe and North America. We offer three masterclasses covering the aspects we get asked about the most by parents and teachers – how to set up your own Arabic classes if you can’t find what you are looking for and like our approach and want to do something similar, some teaching basics as most parents come from a non-teaching background and need the rudiments to get started and even a lot of experienced Arabic teachers who have not had the opportunity to undergo formal training or certification are attracted to this masterclass and the feedback we get shows parents and teachers alike learn a lot. Lastly, we offer a masterclass specifically about the Kalamna Phonics™ method and this is probably our most popular masterclass, particularly after the release of the toolkit. More information, including registration information is available on our website.

Find out more about Kalamna at their website, kalamna.org/.