Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On the Arabic Curriculum in Egypt

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

I’m kind of obsessed with how horrible the Arabic Language curriculum is in Egypt. For the early years especially. I’ll be the first to admit it’s difficult for me to write and read professionally in Arabic, but I can do it and have gotten better at it with practice because my foundation is good (learned Arabic in Kuwait) and I just realized recently that if I read more professional stuff in Arabic, my brain starts to find the words easily. But I’m watching my kid struggle to learn this third language. Because written (Modern Standard) Arabic (MSA) is a different language from the Egyptian dialect (diglossia). It’s got SOME similarities and overlap but really has very different words, pronunciation and grammar even. Other Arab dialects are not necessarily mutually comprehensible to each other if people aren’t already familiar with them. To exacerbate this matter, there are children in Egypt who

  1. Don’t have literate parents. Those illiterate parents would be unfamiliar with the vocabulary of MSA (let alone that they can’t read or write at all) OR
  2. Are studying in a language other than Arabic most of the time, which is orthographically different. Learning English and French or Spanish in parallel does not have this obstacle (though I assume the slight differences in ways the letters are pronounced is its own problem, but at least it’s not a whole new alphabet written in a different way from a different direction.u get the picture). 

My students this semester are also very interested in the reform of Arabic teaching here because they were at International schools and their Arabic is not always good enough. 

But more importantly, students who are in public schools and ONLY speak Arabic are KNOWN in Egypt to have difficulty writing and reading. 

The other day, i was giving a workshop at an NGO and another educator said her NGO would take school kids and teach them to read, then they would go back to school and a while later, they would have a reversal. They would forget how to read. It’s surprising and frustrating, though we discussed possible reasons:

  • They learn the technical skill of reading, but not the overall process of literacy which involves just naturally reading everything around them like street signs and food labels and TV news reels and of course actual books and newspapers. 
  • Their parents don’t reinforce at home, perhaps because too busy or illiterate themselves 
  • Their teachers in school go too fast and kids copy off the board by rote but without understanding what they write. A mom in the room mentioned this happens to her son

So anyway. I’ve been thinking of this Arabic curriculum. It’s the 3rd year for my kid to learn Arabic. Here are the things I would do to change the Curriculum 

  1. Paulo Freire was all about starting with the words from the learner’s life. In the Arabic context, I would choose words that are close or identical in their MSA/colloquial form. Some of these are already happening like أسد أرنب كلب but others are wildly wildly unused or very distant words صنبور (a word my kid learned iN KG1 which i had never ever heard before). This may entail that kids from different parts of Egypt w different contexts/environments and sub-dialects/accents emphasize slightly different words.
  2. Kids when introduced to vocabulary, don’t seem to constantly practice the same letters they knew from before. It’s not easy but it would help
  3. Among the MSA words kids need to learn, they must be treated as a foreign language and taught from the corpus the frequently used words among them first
  4. Choosing appropriate pictures for demonstrating words. Some bad examples include picture of a woman to represent mom (she’s a woman in the pic without children or anything which is really unclear, not to mention sexist) or a man to represent dad or even worse, a kid looking through a telescope to representing “seeing” (my kid thought the word meant telescope. Of course!) 
  5. Expose children to MSA culture (I hear cartoons in MSA help a lot. This may be on parents more but sometimes the cartoons themselves that are available aren’t good ones – and the good oens have English versions so my kid insists on watching those. Could they show افتح يا سمسم or such in school – Arabic Sesame Street – we know Sesame street is research-based) or expose kids to songs in MSA to help them learn it 
  6. Currently the Arabic Curriculum has exercises with several letters jumbled up and kids need to make words with them. My kid can do this in English. She struggles to do it in Arabic because her vocabulary isn’t that large and STRANGELY the collection of letters provided are nothing like any of the words the kids recently wrote!!! The kids don’t have enough vocabulary to make up a new MSA word they never saw before. It’s not possible without parental help
  7. Books you might buy to support your kid with reading don’t always have the vowel accents تشكيل (diacritics) and some worksheets don’t either. Kids can’t read those. You need a pretty extensive knowledge of Arabic to be able to read those! 
  8. Instead of teaching kids how to write letter forms when they’re very young, consider focusing on having them recognize the letters first (I have magnets on our fridge) and play games with them. Or create them from play-doh (easier to manipulate for a 4 year old than writing which is a fine motor skill some kids reach capacity for at different ages).
  9. By year 1 (3rd year of learning Arabic) kids are being asked to break words down into component parts after they had just learned to string the letters together. This is a meaningless exercise to WRITE. It’s useful to understand syllables as a sound..but breaking a word up and writing it broken i just plain confusing. 

I need to stop now coz I am reaching home. Will post more when I can inshallah 

2 Comments

  1. I have also seen this with my kids in Saudi Arabia, only one of whom emerged from the experience with anything approaching literacy in Arabic. I believe that the problem is not to do with dialect or diglossia but with an educational culture that centers largely on memorization and rote learning. Arabic is approached as content, not as skill, and much of the focus in the classroom is on what teachers do rather than on what students do. Language is not content: it is skill. When we approach language as skill – not content – then we might begin to understand better what appropriate language learning outcomes might be.

    • Ah i hear u. Language as a mode of expression you use. Not set of rules to learn (which goes nowhere to help u apply it as a language in different contexts than the academic worksheet)

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