ZU Research Conferences

Learning to Read: A Path to Improving Arabic Literacy in MENA

22-23 May 2023 – Zayed University, Abu Dhabi Campus

Concept Note


Prior to Covid, learning poverty affected 63 percent of children in MENA’s low- and middle-income countries who were unable to read and comprehend a short story by age 10. Because of the pandemic-related disruptions to schooling, the proportion of those deemed “learning-poor” is now estimated by the World Bank to be as high as 70 percent—almost an entire generation of learners.

Solutions are needed to urgently tackle learning poverty across the region. The World Bank’s report on Advancing Arabic Language Teaching and Learning: A Path to Reducing Learning Poverty in the Middle East and North Africa (available in Arabic and English), and the subsequent joint World Bank-Queen Rania Foundation (QRF) series of six webinars on Conversations on Advancing Arabic Language Teaching and Learning, featuring experts from across the region and the world, shone a spotlight on the challenges and the systemwide efforts needed to improve reading and Arabic literacy outcomes.

At the same time, a global movement is underway to support governments’ efforts to transform and sustain improvements in education, including through the Transforming Education Summit of September 2022 and the related national discussions.

Objective and expected outcomes

The conference will build on the positive momentum created by the above report and webinar series highlighting the status of learning poverty in MENA—utilizing newly released 2021 PIRLS results and other data sources—and showcase research and country strategies to illuminate a path to reducing learning poverty in the MENA region. As a result of the conference, new information from conference papers will be available to inform policy and decision making, knowledge sharing, and collaboration to raise awareness of the issues and options for raising literacy outcomes in the region.


The 2-day conference will focus on policy and practical approaches/solutions to reducing learning poverty in MENA. The first day would include an opening plenary on the status and importance of foundational literacy for MENA’s development; a keynote speech with a call to action; and presentations on the latest research on Arabic language teaching and learning. The second day would showcase experiences and initiatives across MENA countries in relation to the World Bank’s proposed path to reducing learning poverty in MENA. The conference would be “in-person” only. Conference materials will be publicly available through a webpage agreed upon by the World Bank and partners.

Roles and Responsibilities

The World Bank and distinguished partners from the region would have the following roles and responsibilities:

  • World Bank – provide content, lead on the agenda, identify potential speakers (with inputs from other partners), and secure client countries’ invitees and ministry officials with support from the World Bank’s Task Team Leads (TTLs) across the region.

  • Zayed University (Zai Arabic Language Research Center)

  • Arab Thought Foundation

  • Queen Rania Foundation

  • Mohamed Bin Zayed University for Humanities




Key partner would be expected to select a representative to join a conference organizing committee. All technical contributions are expected to be in line with the areas of focus outlined in the World Bank’s “Path for Reducing Learning Poverty in the Middle EAST and North Africa.”

Presenters and audience

The conference is aimed at high-level government officials and policymakers, such as heads of departments and deputy ministers, along with staff from civil society organizations, academia, private sector, universities, and development partners. Around 50 official delegates would be expected (including speakers and high-level invitees), along with approximately another 100–150 attendees. Attendees who are not speakers or high-level invitees would be expected to fund their own participation through their ongoing project/program funds. There would be no fee for attendance at the conference.

The participation of renowned and well-respected speakers will be sought in line with the agenda to be developed in collaboration with conference partners.

Date & Venue

The conference is expected to take place in person, with a target of May 22–23, 2023. It will take place at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi Campus.