Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

I’ll admit it: It was my idea.

A few months ago, Abdullah managed to learn surah al-Fathihah by osmosis, as it were: he heard it recited in prayer and at night so many times that he just learned most of it. A little work on our end, and he had it down pat. My father encouraged me to work more closely with him because he obviously had a knack for memorization, and off we went.

After we had a few surahs down, we set a goal of 10 by his third birthday. And somewhere along the way, even though he was doing perfectly fine without any extrinsic rewards attached to his learning, I dangled a carrot: “If you learn 10 surahs, we’ll do a ’10 Surah’ party for you!” It seemed innocuous enough–our culture is so saturated with this type of carrot-on-a-stick style of motivation that we never question it.


I, on the other hand, am probably the last person to dangle such a reward because I have always found this type of motivation distasteful, especially for Islamic pursuits. Instead of drawing our children’s attention to the rewards of Allah for their deeds, we try and hoodwink them with worldly rewards. I have seen many justifications for this, especially when the issue of Qur’an competitions come up, but I still cannot shake my dislike of the idea. When a Qur’an competition came up in the community where I was teaching at an Islamic school, a particularly astute and sincere young student told me she would not be participating. “I want to learn the Qur’an for Allah,” she said, “not to win a competition.”

“SubhanAllah,” I remember thinking at the time. What blessed parents she must have–I want my children to have this same sincere attitude towards Allah’s book.

I’ve taken great interest over the years, especially as it relates to my teaching, in the astute observations of Alfie Kohn on this issue. He is adamant that rewards are harmful because they take away a person’s intrinsic motivation to do a task, which is innately damaging to them as a student or even an employee. In an interview he noted:

Rewards are most damaging to interest when the task is already intrinsically  motivating. That may be simply because there is that much more interest to lose when extrinsics are introduced…

Mea culpa–because this is exactly what happened with Abdullah. It was a difference like night and day–the day after his party, he was utterly disinterested in learning surahs, whereas before, he did it naturally without question. He had, in the weeks prior, some deep fitri (innate) inclination towards memorizing Qur’an and it was noticeably less present after the party.

Kohn, in the same interview, when asked if this was his opinion or supported by research, countered that it was indeed well established in social science research:

There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators— including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most:  desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.

How potent is our own inner desire to do something, and to do it well! When we try and ignore that innate desire for goodness (Ihsaan as it were) and offer external motivations, then it’s natural that the work that is produced then will be sub-par. We no longer care for goodness, we care only for the carrot dangling in front of us.

People often argue that Allah (subhanahu wa ta’aala) offers us rewards for our actions, therefore we are merely paralleling this when we offer people rewards for their work. This is a faulty analogy. Allah’s rewards are not here in the dunya, there is no “instant gratification” associated with them besides the tranquility of heart that a believer receives when she obeys Allah. The believers must wait patiently for the true reward and recognition of their work in the aakhirah. If anything, the promises of Allah teach us that we must exercise patience and restraint when doing good, for the results do not come quickly and physically in front of us.

I went back and talked to my father again, because he too agrees with much of Kohn’s ideas on rewards and learning. He stressed that we underestimate children’s ability to develop intrinsic motivation for learning Qur’an. We can indeed develop their innate desire to learn by discussing Allah’s rewards and emphasizing that when they memorize Qur’an, Allah will love them.

I don’t regret the party, because I think it is beneficial to celebrate accomplishments, especially to “rejoice” in the blessing of memorizing Qur’an. In the Qur’an itself, after Allah describes His book as an admonition, a healing of the hearts, and a guidance, He says:

“Say: In the bounty of Allah and in His Mercy, in that let them rejoice; it is better than all they amass.” (Yunus: 58)

I love this ayah, for it calls us to celebrate the wonder of the Qur’an. I hope to impart a small bit of that enjoyment and excitement to Abdullah on his level by throwing him a small party. I wonder if perhaps celebrating his accomplishments after the fact, rather than dangling them as enticements to work, would better serve this purpose without undermining his innate desire to learn.

The other day, Siraj and I were doing some damage control as we discussed with Abdullah memorizing future surahs. Rather than focusing on future rewards, we encouraged him by developing activities related to the memorization of the surahs. He’s finishing al-Ma’un and going to go ahead to al-Feel, so we worked up his excitement by discussing the meanings of Surah al-Ma’un and what it was calling him to do, and then we planned for a project showing the events in Surah al-Feel. Later, he came up to me and said, “Mama, I want to learn Surah al-Feel!” And that, dear friends, was like “music” to my ears.


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I’ve been working every day (almost) on Abdullah’s Qur’an memorization for the last few months, because he lately showed a keenness and aptitude for it. He recently finished memorizing his first ten eleven surahs just before his third birthday–Al-Hamdulillah-il-adhee bi ni’matihi tatimmus-saalihaat. All praise is to the One who by His Grace, good deeds are accomplished!

I offer a few tips based on what I found has helped us so far. I realize that these tips may not be suitable for everyone, as each child has her own areas of strength. I try to blend a variety of learning methods (visual, auditory, tactile) to create as many pathways for learning as possible. Take and leave these tips as you see fit! I hope it will help those who are teaching children Qur’an.

First a note on concentration: it’s hard with little children to maintain their attention for long, so we usually do several small lessons rather than one long lesson. I also usually let Abdullah wander around, lie down, and be “fidgety” as we are reciting since he’s too small to expect to sit still. For some children these type of mindless motions help them learn as well.

And secondly a note on tajweed: it’s really important for the teacher to have proper tajweed before teaching the surahs, because it’s difficult for a child to unlearn a surah that has been learned incorrectly. If in doubt, see a tajweed teacher and have them test your tajweed and recitation to see if it would be a good idea for your children/students to recite after you. If not, use the recordings online to create lessons where you stop and start it according to their needs. You can also play the files in a program like Windows Media Player and adjust the speed so the playback is slower than the original.

And now, the tips:

  1. Prep: We usually start with some exposure to the surah, by playing it in the house, reciting it to him, reciting in salah, etc. before we actually “sit down” to memorize it. It’s less frustrating that way because by the time we sit to memorize it he’s already familiar with the words.
  2. End game: Initially, we play a game where we recite parts of the ayah and have him fill in the end word(s).
  3. Mouth aerobics: To get the right pronunciation, I have Abdullah watch my mouth as I recite with exaggerated mouth movements to demonstrate the pronunciation and tajweed.
  4. Visual prompts: Hand motions can help with tough words/phrases or learning the order of ayat. A couple of examples: For al-Kaafiroon, I put up one finger for each verse. I teach that finger #4 is for “wa laa ana aabidun” and #2 and #5 are “wa laa antum” sandwiching that verse. After five ayat, I show a fist to remind to go to the last ayah “lakum deenukum.” For Surah al-Maa’un, “Fa waylul-lil musalleen” I do a slow drumroll to get the “beat” down so that it is less of a tongue twister. For al-Feel, I show gestures that correspond with the meaning: “a lam tara” (point to eyes), “tayran” show bird-like motions, “tarmeehim” show throwing motion, etc.
  5. “Read” the surah: This works better for older kids who can sit down and concentrate on the written word: while teaching an ayah, I point to the Arabic word in the mus’haf and eventually they learn to recognize the surah or some words by sight.
  6. Using “al-Mu’allim” recordings: One of the clearest of these is by al-Minshaawi where he recites an ayah and then a group of kids recite after him. We play a game where Abdullah plays “shaykh” and we recite after him. It works sometimes on those days when he’s reluctant to recite after us. We then switch roles and we play “shaykh” or we recite together and he says, “Now we are both shaykhs!”
  7. Two at a time: For some kids this may be confusing, but it works for us– as Abdullah is nearing the end of one surah, we start on the next one. So for a few days we do two surahs at a time–the first is pretty much done but needs polishing, while we tackle number two.
  8. Learn the meanings: Abdullah has always demanded to know what he was reciting, so we go over the meanings of each surah. I try to distill each surah into a few important points and have him learn those just as he learns the surah itself. So, for example, his last surah (al-Maaun), we focused on four important points: help the orphans, help the poor, pray sincerely for Allah, and do small acts of kindness. We try and have him act out on the meanings as well, so for example I had him take a glass of soda to the worker who was repairing the house, telling him that it was an example of “al-Maaun.”
  9. Hands-on projects: This goes hand-in-hand with learning the meanings–we just started making a one-sheet visual representation of the surah. So for al-Maaun, I printed clip art illustrating each of the four main points above, and he glued it to a sheet labled “al-Maaun.” I then labeled each picture with the Arabic word for each theme (yateem, miskeen, musalleen, and al-Maaun). For al-Feel, we made a picture of men on elephants going towards the Ka’bah with a flock of birds in the sky with stones. We labeled each part of the picture with words from the surah (ashaab ul-feel, tayran abaabeel, hijaarah min sijjeel).
  10. Recite it all day: Memorization these days is the main focus of our day, we try and infuse it throughout the day as much as possible. So when Abdullah’s grandmother comes home from work, he recites his daily lesson to her, when we are just sitting around doing nothing, we try and review a little bit. Because at this age his attention span is so short, we squeeze in short mini review sessions whenever we can.
  11. Car time: This is a great time to review because there’s nothing else to do in the car!
  12. Peer pressure: Showing YouTube videos of people (especially kids) reciting helps build up enthusiasm.

I hope these tips were of help–remember, slow and steady wins the race: memorization will be really slow in the beginning, but eventually they get the hang of it. Even if they won’t recite, keep reciting to them and something will sink in once they are ready and willing to recite back. I pray that Allah gives us ikhlaas (sincerity) and tawfeeq (success) in our efforts!

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As I was going through some of my old writing, I found an article I wrote in December 2002 for the Muslim Link newspaper. It was about Du’aa, specifically the du’aas made by children in the month of Ramadan. At the time I was teaching in Al-Huda School in College Park, Maryland, and a short story that I narrated at the end of the piece made me really miss my days teaching there. I had forgotten this story, and I include it below as it is a touching reminder:

…an experience with a group of first grade girls may illustrate the intensely personal nature of du’aa. As I sat with a group of these students, I asked them to raise their hands and silently ask Allah for something. We then went around the circle and each person shared what they made du’aa for. Each shared their du’aas, but when we reached to one child, she simply sat quietly and shook her head from side to side. “Would you like to share your du’aa with us?” Again, a silent “no” as her head slowly turned right to left. “Well, even though we didn’t get to hear your du’aa, do you think Allah heard it?” This time, her head indicated a “yes” as a smile came over her face. Not wanting to push her, I let her know that it was perfectly okay to keep her du’aa private, but that she could feel free to share it with me alone if she felt comfortable. After I dismissed the girls to their seats to write down their du’aas, the child came up to me, alone. Perhaps now she would share her du’aa with me, I thought. Yet she had something else in mind. Slowly and deliberately, trying hard to get each letter out correctly, she said: “Jazaakumullaahu khairan.” May Allah reward you with goodness… For what, I wondered?

“Wa iyyaaki,” I responded, shaking her small hand. And to you too. At that instant, I realized that she was thanking me for understanding her own need to speak to Allah alone; to tell Him a personal request, knowing that it would be kept private between herself and Allah, and trusting that in this blessed month of Ramadan, it would surely be accepted.

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