The mixed-ability classroom is the norm in the United Arab Emirates, but an English teacher new to the country may be shocked at just how broad that range of abilities is. It is not uncommon to have a few students who still cannot properly write their own names in the language despite vast exposure to English in school.
Very rarely do you find students who are highly proficient in English. ESL teachers around the Arab world frequently note that while their students may be able to speak English at a satisfactory BICS level and understand when spoken to them, the majority have great difficulty with reading and writing in the language.
In this blog, I focus on some of the difficulties a teacher may encounter teaching writing skills in Emirati schools. I offer some observations and considerations informed from what I’ve learned through my ten years of experience in an Emirati classroom with ADEC and ADVETI, my background as an Arabic language learner, and the TESOL certification I completed with OnTESOL.
For English teachers interested in delving deeper into the matter of teaching writing skills to Arab students, this article focuses on orthographic and spelling considerations, lexical and grammatical interference, and rhetorical and syntactical structures.
Orthographic and Spelling Considerations
The first thing I had to tackle as an Arabic-language learner was the writing system, which is unlike any other language I studied in the past. There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet, which are connected in writing in a cursive style; however, most of the letters have four, sometimes radically different, forms depending on their position in a word.
Then, of course, you string it all together from right to left, which perhaps was the biggest challenge for me to overcome, requiring lots of practice to correctly train my movements. Well, the inverse is true for Arab students learning to write in English.
The English writing system poses many challenges for them. These students have to learn to write from the opposite direction, which surely is as much if not more of a challenge than it was for me. They must assimilate an alphabet composed of capital and lowercase letters (Arabic makes no distinction between capital and lowercase letters).
Furthermore, they must learn to be more attentive to the vowel sounds in words when encoding (In Arabic writing only the long vowel sounds are represented, short vowels being represented by a system of diacritical marks that is routinely omitted in everyday Arabic texts).
Many of my Emirati students struggle with correctly and consistently forming the letters of the English alphabet. Despite the fluid ease with which they can write in Arabic, much of what I see from my students could have been written by an early elementary student back home. They will frequently omit capital letters or use them inappropriately and inconsistently throughout their writing. Much of this likely stems from inadequate or insufficient instruction and practice earlier in their education.
The letters g, j, p, q, and y, for example, are frequently formed above the page lines, sometimes making as if to fly away, having been written higher than the other letters in the word. This suggests that while they were taught the alphabet early on, the training they received in letter formation, especially when composing on standardized paper, was limited or inadequate.
Beyond simple orthography, spelling is a major problem in my students’ writing. One reason is that when learning English, Arab students have to reckon with English’s unconventional spelling patterns and irregular forms. The directionality of their native writing system often interferes with their writing (and reading) of English. One frequently encountered example is the confusion of letters with ‘mirror’ shapes. Where a student will write b instead of d, p instead of q, and vice-versa. The letter p poses a further problem for Arab students as the phoneme represented by this letter does not exist in Arabic. Many students will write b in places where p is required, especially if recording from a dictation or listening script.
Another example of how the different directionality of Arabic can interfere with Arab students’ writing is the reversal of letters within words, particularly towards the center, such as ‘twon’ instead of ‘town’ or ‘paly’ instead of ‘play’. I have witnessed such mistakes often in my students’ writing, which I’ve pondered as akin to dyslexia except that the students are wired correctly for reading and writing in their native language.
Lexical and Grammatical Interference
A prominent form of grammatical interference that manifests more often in students’ writing than in speech is a redundancy in the parts of a sentence (i.e. subjects, verbs, objects). It is not unusual to encounter constructions similar to “Mohammed he loves a girl he met her last year” (redundancy in the subject and object), yet this, in fact, is a direct translation of the same sentence written in formal Arabic. Inappropriate pronouns don’t just stop at redundancy.
Additionally, Arabic’s rules for gender often lead to the incorrect use of ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘it’ for inanimate or neuter nouns because there is no corresponding word for ‘it’ in Arabic; it is a dual-gender language. Further confusion comes from Arabic’s pronoun-antecedent rule for inanimate plural nouns, which, no matter the gender of the singular noun, always take ‘she’ when plural.
Just as there is no ‘it’ in Arabic, there is also no indefinite article (a/an). Indefiniteness is often simply signaled by the absence of the definite article.
Furthermore, there is no present tense form of the verb ‘to be’. For example, the construction ‘he man’ for ‘he is a man’ is grammatically complete in Arabic. The definite article does exist in Arabic but you may find it in unexpected places in your Arab students writing.
In Arabic, if you want to write ‘he is the man’, it would translate as ‘he the man’; however, if you want to write ‘he is the tall man’, it would translate as ‘he the man the tall’. In other words, when defining a noun in Arabic you must also define any adjectives modifying that noun. This confused me when learning it in Arabic. Unlearning it for Arab students can be an equally confusing challenge.
Two other major areas of interference I have noted in my students’ writing are prepositions and lexical usage.
Also, the meaning and usage of Arabic prepositions do not always correspond with their otherwise English counterparts. In prepositional and verbal phrases in Arabic, a different pronoun use, than the one we would expect given our language. For example, the verbal phrase ‘afraid of’ directly translates from Arabic as ‘afraid from’. This can sometimes have more comical results, such as ‘I saw him on the television last night’.
Moreover, be on the lookout for cases where Arab students have translated Arabic phrases and expressions directly into English without considering their appropriateness or clarity.
Another, many such phrases and expressions in Arabic become odd, if not downright befuddling when translated word for word into English. Oftentimes the problem may lie with a single lexical interference where the word in Arabic, when translated directly, conveys a different meaning in English.
Rhetorical and Syntactical Structures
Modern Arabic has adopted a system of punctuation not too different from that used in the English language, yet Arabic punctuation rules are still not as restrictive as in English. Some of my students need foundational instruction on the usage rules for common punctuation marks and the conventions that attend them, such as capitalization. While others have learned the rules but inconsistently apply them, requiring more coaching than anything.
My students’ problems with sentence structure do not stop at simple confusion over punctuation usage. Arabic rhetorical practice also commonly interferes with the production of structurally correct sentences in English. Run-on sentences are the biggest problem for ESL students in the United Arab Emirates.
In Arabic rhetoric you can load a sentence with several grammatically complete ideas. It all linked together with the Arabic equivalent of ‘and’, and it’s acceptable. I encounter this in my students’ writing often. And also, as a quick remedy, I simply advise them to limit each sentence to two independent ideas.
To foster lasting understanding I have to provide more in-depth instruction and ample practice, especially once we get into subordination; otherwise, the looser usage rules in Arabic may begin to win out once again.
OnTESOL Graduate Blog by Greg Askew – Originally published in 2012. Greg completed the online TESOL certification course in the United States –