Teaching Writing in the UAE Part I: Orthographic and Spelling Considerations

Teaching writing in the United Arab Emirates TESOLAs mentioned in one of my previous posts, the mixed-ability classroom is the norm in the UAE, but an EFL 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, despite vast exposure to English in school, still cannot properly write their own names in the language.

Very rarely do you find students who are solidly proficient in English. EFL 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 series of blogs I will focus on some of the difficulties a teacher may encounter when fostering improved writing skills among Emirati students. I offer here some observations and considerations informed from what I’ve learned through Ontesol’s 250-hour TESOL Diploma course, my three years of experience in an Emirati classroom, as well as my background as a language learner myself. For anyone interested in delving deeper into the matter of teaching writing to Arab students, a quick internet search will turn up several websites, papers, and bibliographies to guide your way.

Teaching Writing – 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 to 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. However, the directionality of their native writing system often interferes with their writing (and reading) of English. One frequently encountered example is 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.

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