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Helen Abadzi | Cognitive psychology | Al Qasimi Foundation | Ras Al Khaimah | Arabic literacy

What Cognitive Science Tells Us About Arabic Literacy

Al Qasimi Foundation
June 29, 2016

Education leaders in the Gulf are familiar with international benchmark tests like the PIRLS, TIMSS, and PISA. Most are also familiar with the reality that, despite massive financial investments in education on the part of GCC states, their test scores remain comparatively low.

For example, the PIRLS expects grade four students worldwide to read passages of 800-1000 words and answer questions. However, evaluation specialists report that in some Gulf countries, fourth graders may study passages that are only 50-100 words long.

These test results indicate that literacy rates among students in the Gulf need improvement in order to support the knowledge economies that these states are building.

According to cognitive psychologist Dr. Helen Abadzi, “Prosperous Gulf countries may be particularly vulnerable to the ‘trap’ of innovation” even as they make education a national priority.

“Countries that can afford the best are likely to hire prominent consultants who may not know a word of Arabic, yet confidently recommend strategies more suitable for grammatically simpler languages, like English.”

By contrast, Arabic has a large grammatical framework that must be taught systematically. 

Cognitive neuroscience, believes Dr. Abadzi, may shed light on why Arab students fall behind students from other nations at such early stages in their education.

With this in view, the Al Qasimi Foundation is collaborating with Dr. Abadzi to develop a beginning textbook that is designed to help Emirati students overcome the challenges associated with Arabic literacy.

“We greatly appreciate the dedication Dr. Abadzi has shown in helping students read more fluently in Arabic, and we’re privileged to be working with such a high-caliber international expert,” says Dr. Natasha Ridge, Executive Director of the Al Qasimi Foundation.

In an informal measure of reading speed among students in Ras Al Khaimah government schools, Dr. Abadzi and Foundation researchers found that students read and comprehended text better than their Arab counterparts in the Middle East. However, U.S. students, on average, may process about 35% more text (in English) than the Ras Al Khaimah sample read in Arabic, under the same time constraints.

At the heart of improving reading comprehension among students (a skill that applies to math and science as well as the humanities) is improving the fluency with which Arabic speakers read text. The difficulty of increasing this fluency relates to certain brain functions.

In order to comprehend the meaning of a text’s content, readers must first decode the sounds of letters, locate the meaning of words, and discern the grammar of Arabic constructions.

Yet, our working memory may only store information for about 12 seconds, explains Dr. Abadzi.

This means that students who decode the Arabic script too slowly forget the fundamental pieces of the text (letters and words) before their minds are able to put them together to grasp the concepts located within that text.

Fluency and automaticity in reading Arabic texts comes particularly slowly because of the evolution of the script.

“Research shows that similar characters with disconnected lines and dots slow readers down,” says Dr. Abadzi.

In addition, printed Arabic letters tend to be densely packed to form words and sentences that look intimidating and make it difficult to discriminate among the letters. Learners may need many hours of structured practice to become habituated to the letters, and they also need to understand the language instantly. 

“The difficulty is that devoting time to language drills and reading practice remains unpopular among people who are already frustrated by their Arabic studies and among educators who favor more novel classroom activities,” says Foundation researcher Ms. Sahar ElAsad, who is helping develop the textbook for local students.

Today’s pedagogical training often emphasizes group activities and multimedia over language rehearsal, which may not be ideal for helping Arabic students develop their experience with decoding passages and move on to higher order thinking activities.

“Cognitive neuroscience tells us that practice in all subjects develops fluent and automatic performance. Working memory lasts just a few seconds. Fluency frees up mental resources that can be utilized to understand text, engage in mathematical thinking, and deliberate critically about various subjects,” says Dr. Abadzi.

This understanding is guiding Dr. Abadzi and the Foundation as they produce a textbook for first graders that will familiarize them with the Arabic letters so that students internalize the forms, positions, and harakat (vowel pointing) associated with different letters. Letters in the text will also be large and spaced further apart to help students differentiate among them and achieve automaticity in their reading.

This textbook will meet a tangible need in early education curriculum by presenting material in a way that allows students to process and internalize the Arabic script more easily. It represents a step toward improving the fluency of Arabic students early in their education.

“The big picture of this project is that greater reading fluency allows students to develop their critical thinking skills at a younger age and to a greater degree, which has implications for all of their studies as well as their future careers,” says Dr. Ridge.