While individuals and organisations across the country are working hard to educate our children, some organisations want to make sure that the children who are in school are able to make the best of their school careers.

The Dawn in Education programme was launched in 1988 by the Dawn Media Group, one of Pakistan’s oldest media houses. “We started the education programme with the hope of improving students’ newspaper-reading habits, introducing newspapers in schools and training teachers to use newspapers as part of their curriculum,” says Niloufer Patel, Director Circulation and Coordination, Dawn. “We wanted to encourage students to read more books outside of school assignments.”

To this end, Dawn in Education held art competitions, arranged school tours and encouraged students to visit newspaper offices to see how a newspaper was put together and published. In 2004, it held the first-ever national spelling competition, the Dawn Spelling Bee. “The idea behind it was to develop two key skills in children,” Patel explains. “The first is to work together in a team and compete with other teams, and then through teamwork to gain the confidence to stand on your own two feet and compete individually.”

Starting small, with 30-40 schools from Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore participating, today the Dawn Spelling Bee draws competitors from up to 800 schools in Faisalabad, Gilgit, Hyderabad, Multan, Peshawar, Quetta, Skardu and Sukkur. “It’s the spread that’s important,” says Patel. “This is not just for schools in the major cities.”

The contest is designed to expand children’s learning horizons beyond the classroom and preparation for the contest is an important part of the experience. “In the beginning we used to distribute a ‘word book’ for the competition and all the words in the contest would come from this book,” Patel says. But now more than 60 per cent of the words in the competition come from outside the word book, compelling children to read other materials on their own, which expands their knowledge. As a result, success in the competition is not about rote learning but about a broader knowledge of language. “Students learn about the origins of words, and they learn the concepts behind spelling and language.” Knowledge of etymology is essential to spelling bees, Patel points out, as this is how children learn to spell properly. Teachers from participating schools are trained by the Spelling Bee team on how to prepare students for the competition, including phonetics and activity-based learning methods.

“Teachers, parents and even grandparents take the whole competition personally,” Patel says. “This means they also get involved in helping to prepare the child, which gets the whole family involved in the learning experience.” The Spelling Bee helps to encourage a more interactive style of learning.

“We want to make learning fun for everyone,” says Patel. “A lot of work is being done on education in the country, maybe not at the pace it could be, but it is happening. We are adding to this space and we are showing that learning does not have to be boring.”

With nearly half of all Pakistani children not in school, and the majority of those who are in school not learning enough, the challenge is to make sure every boy and girl receives a quality education. At the same time, however, it is important to remember that literacy alone is a means to an end: a way of opening up a child’s mind to the knowledge of the world. The Dawn Spelling Bee aims to do just that, making learning enjoyable and helping to expand the horizons of schoolchildren.