In 2016, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that Arabic was the second-most-common home language for English language learner (ELL) students in the United States. Many teachers, at some point in their careers, will teach English to an Arabic-speaking student. But very few teachers have any experience with Arabic, unlike Spanish, which many of us have had at least some exposure to. And as teachers, we know that a child’s culture and first language give them the structures that organize how they acquire their second.
Arabic ranks among the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to learn: Its grammar differs from English, its script is written from right to left, and it features sounds that English doesn’t have. I lived in the Middle East for 13 years, and I am far from fluent. But I’ve learned that what I have problems learning in Arabic, my ELL students have trouble learning in English.
Here are some strategies that recognize the differences between the two languages and make teaching Arabic-speaking ELL students a bit easier.
Unlike in English, each letter in Arabic has only one sound, which can make letters like c, g, q, and x confusing. Also, Arabic has no /p/ sound and only three vowel sounds. These are long and short /a/, /i/, and /u/—but each one sounds slightly different, depending on where in the Middle East the speaker is from. For example, in the Arab name Noor or Noorah, the /oo/ sound can land between a long /o/ and /u/, which is why some Arabic speakers spell the name in English as Nour or Nourah.
Also, some Arabic consonants are spoken with the tongue at the back of the roof of the mouth. The most common example of this is the /kh/ sound in the name Khaled. Most English speakers pronounce it as either Kaled or Haled because very few of us can make the sound correctly. Arabic features other guttural sounds too, and while they sound fluid and beautiful in Arabic, when applied to English words, they sound harsh and are nearly impossible to understand.
Just as these sounds are challenging to native English speakers, particular sounds in English are challenging for Arabic speakers, so my Arabic ELL classes are phonics intensive: I start each class period with a vowel, consonant, and blends review. Young children often need this routine reinforcement to help them remember these sounds, and while older children may be able to distinguish between the sounds, they may be at a loss when it comes to making the correct sound when faced with such a /p/ or a /b/.
When introducing new vocabulary to young children, I usually give them a coloring picture with the word for them to trace to help them with meanings in addition to sounds. A visual representation of the sounds of the word helps them to remember how to say it correctly, and tracing the word and coloring the picture reinforces that with tactile information. With older students, I write the word on the board to visually reinforce what the student hears.
Arabic is rendered in script similar to cursive that is written and read from right to left; the cognitive challenge of reversing writing is so extreme that it’s not uncommon for older students to turn in entire essays that you need a mirror to read—and without spaces because spacing in written Arabic is much narrower than in English.
For older students who are accustomed to reading and writing in Arabic, practice finding the first page in a book can work well. I team up Arabic speakers with other ELL students and call out different page numbers so that each group can race to find the page—that helps them become accustomed to reading “backward.” Sometimes I teach them cursive: I group letters by circles, sticks, and loops so that the students can see the similarities to Arabic.
With younger students who might be learning to read and write in Arabic and English simultaneously, I make sure to remind them which direction they’re working in at the beginning of each class period. A bracelet or colorful string tied around their left wrist helps them remember which direction to read and write in.
There is another, more serious challenge facing older Arabic-speaking students learning to write in English: Written Arabic is very formal. Modern Standard Arabic, which is used for writing, is very similar to Classical Arabic—it has changed little over the course of centuries. Imagine if you spoke in everyday English but wrote in Shakespearean English—that’s what it’s like, and that’s why writing in English is so daunting for Arabic-speaking ELLs. I have seen students, in a complete panic, copy by hand or cut and paste entire pages from online sources.
I once had a group of eighth-grade Arabic-speaking ELL boys who refused to answer even the simplest open-ended question, so I asked them to design a new action sequence for Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (they weren’t happy with how that installment ended). The boys collaborated in groups of three or four to diagram and illustrate their new action sequence using storyboards; then they wrote several short sentences with directions for the actors and stunt people.
That was a challenging assignment, but it also intrigued them. Once they completed it successfully, they were ready to take on other writing assignments. By the end of the year, the boys were writing two-page essays and giving short speeches. When the boys could choose simple assignments that piqued their interest, much like choice reading, they developed their own voices and came to enjoy writing.
A child’s culture also influences how they learn a second language. Arabic culture revolves around family and community. While it may be easier for you to work with Arabic students in a small group by themselves, doing so can make them feel isolated.
I have found that Arabic-speaking students often do better in groups with non-Arabic, native English speakers. Socializing and collaborating motivates them to learn English. But I always keep a quiet corner of the room where my Arabic students can go when they are feeling frustrated or overwhelmed.