Schools need to dedicate more time for Arabic language classes and return to basic grammar tests if they are to support struggling pupils, an education summit heard.
Researchers highlighted concerns of pupils coming out of school with poor spoken and written skill sets, resulting in a generation of young Arabs not fluent in their mother tongue.
“Whether you like it or not, research shows that Arabic students are not performing as well. For many, their reading of Arabic is a little slower than reading English," said Helen Abadzi, a professor from the University of Texas at Arlington and education specialist at the World Bank for 27 years.
Experts and teachers at the Gulf Comparative Education Society symposium, organised by the Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, on Sunday in Ras Al Khaimah spoke of the vital need to improve the academic achievement of Arab pupils from grade 1.
“Time must be spent in class to regularly practice reading and language comprehension skills so these become automatic," Ms Abadzi said.
"They should systematically learn Arabic grammatical patterns to understand texts instantly."
The UAE has set a goal to rank in the top 20 countries in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and the top 15 nations in TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) by 2021.
The government had announced last year that Arabic language education would be given greater importance in private schools with upgraded teacher training and a revised curriculum.
This is part of measures to protect the language, particularly with more Emiratis attending private schools.
One of the reasons that Arab nations score lower in international test assessment scores compared to non-Arab countries, Ms Abadzi said, is due to visual complexities of the Arabic script and a limited command of grammar.
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The Al Qasimi foundation has developed a textbook to increase reading speed with large spaced letters, individual symbols and combinations.
"Arabic letters may take a few seconds longer to recognise compared to scripts like English," she said.
"Finding a pattern becomes more complicated in Arabic and this slows the reading speed for young learners. Inaccurate reading overloads their memory and negatively affects responses.
“There is a need to constantly practice. The higher the reading speed and accuracy in the early grade, then critical thinking becomes possible when students have time to link various concepts.
"The bigger the gaps in reading, the more gaps in understanding and comprehension in later years. Quick visual and linguistic processing speed is required to comprehend large volumes of text.”
Pupils in Gulf countries are able to read single sentences by the end of grade 1, while those internationally read full-page stories, according to a 2016 Unesco study.
This gap continues to widen with students in the Gulf reading texts of 200-300 words by grade 4 compared to their counterparts internationally, who read texts of 800-1,000 words.
Rigorous reading daily in grade 1 and 2, teaching one letter at a time, extra practice for difficult letter combinations, increasing the size and space of letters and texts is necessary, she said.
As part of a pilot programme in a public school in RAK, two first grade sections received two extra classes of reading per week over three months.
The pupils with lower performance doubled the number of letters they could read from 12 to 23 per minute and the number of words moved up from 6.4 to 11.
“The students, we worked with, who knew the least made the biggest improvements,” Ms Abadzi said.
“Students need to process information without any effort. The challenge is for Arab students to also read 1,000 word passages at the start of grade 4.”
In Dubai, for example, pupils in private schools are already taught Arabic about four times per week for 45 minutes at a time.
But the quality of teaching and the practising outside of the classroom is also crucial.
Khalaf Marhoun Al Abri, assistant professor of education policy, at Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University, stressed the need for integration.
“Our students show intelligence when they study abroad. Then they perform well like other students but when they are here the whole context changes. Why? We need to bring improvements to the system. We need cooperation and partnership to overcome the issue,” he said.
“When there is work done in schools, there is no support from families and parents. Sometimes we publish research results but there is no support from policy makers to take the findings forward. So everyone needs to be focused not just the education sector and schools, but the government, society, families and individual students.”
Kaltham Kenaid, head of research at Dubai's regulator, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, said it was important to regularly test Arabic language and Islamic Studies teachers via examinations and interviews.
“We try to use positive psychology and don’t focus on the weakness but on their strengths. The focus must be on what will take us into the future,” she said.
Research programmes have been initiated by the KHDA over the past two years where teachers chalk out goals instead of these being dictated by the school, the principal or the regulator.
“There is a shift in teachers from being powerless to being in control. This is not theoretical. The teachers are learning because they are identifying what a class requires. It can be simple identifying letters, pronouncing words or a focus on creative writing,” said Amal Mousa, the authority's senior data analyst.
“The teacher measures and reviews the progress of the class and shares this with other teachers. They become the engine. They are not passive but are energising the class with tools they have created.”