Experts call for revamp of Arabic curriculum

Panellists say system fails foreign pupils and needs better teaching methods and materials.

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DUBAI // The teaching of Arabic to foreign students is in disarray, and one official has called for the curriculum to be overhauled. Although the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which regulates schools in Dubai, has tried to ensure that Arabic and Islamic studies are given substantial time at international schools, policy makers say teaching materials and lesson plans remain well out-of-date.

"There are no criteria at the Ministry of Education for teaching Arabic as a second language," Jameela al Muhairi, the chief of the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau at the KHDA, said during a panel meeting at the Dubai School of Government. "The books that we are using right now are books that were prepared around a decade ago," she said. "We need to treat Arabic like any other language - like Spanish, like Portuguese."

Ms al Muhairi said strong Arabic programmes were important for both foreign students and Arabs. "The Arabic language is very important for our identity. We need to enhance the status of the Arabic language," she told the meeting on Monday. "Teaching Arabic as a second language is an important vehicle for cultural understanding between Arabs and non-Arabs." Over the past year, the KHDA has been paying close attention to how Arabic is taught in schools.

The first round of inspections last year revealed that most private schools did not comply with ministry rules that stipulate the amount of time students should spend in Arabic classes. They also revealed serious issues with the quality of instruction in private schools in particular. "Arabic is not up to par with any of the other subjects," Ms al Muhairi said. Her comments on the need to revamp the curriculum were echoed by teachers, school administrators and parents at the forum.

"I think the first step is to change the books," said Latifa al Najjar, an associate professor at UAE University. "The books are old, the texts are long and it's difficult for the students." Lina Wright, the head of the Arabic department at Wellington School in Dubai, said the way teachers presented material was as big a problem as the curriculum itself. Dr al Najjar agreed that credentials for Arabic teachers in both private and public schools was an issue that must be addressed.

The problems in teaching Arabic seem to include Arabic speakers. Mrs Wright said schools must provide Arabs with a "strong foundation" in the language. "We need to provide creative and interesting textbooks," she said. "In terms of the book I Love Arabic - the book is outdated. The photos and illustrations are not that clear, texts are so long and it's not that relevant to today's life." For non-Arab students, she called on teachers to engage students. "We need to give him some simple foundation in Arabic, but, at the same time, it needs to be interesting because we are now competing with French, Spanish, science, physics" and other subjects, and the way that they were taught, she said.

The problems are not limited to private schools. Dr al Najjar said there was a "huge gap" between the way Arabic was taught in the UAE and how English was taught in the United States. "We have a long way before we can reach that level," she said. She pointed to two major problems - the credentials of teaching staff and examinations. "They need to test the skills, not the memorisation." Dr al Najjar said the ministry had made strides in improving the Arabic curriculum in the past few years with the introduction of new books. But, in her view, there was still much to be done.

"There are two main steps they should do now - training the teachers and developing the evaluation system for the Arabic language."