Joshua Gubler, Steven Robertson and Dr. Kirk Belnap, Asian and Near Eastern Languages
The “proficiency movement” of recent years has significantly changed the way Arabic is taught in the United States. No longer can teachers focus solely on reading and grammar in the classroom. They must additionally divide already limited class time between teaching listening and speaking skills. Because of this emphasis on speaking skills, many students, especially those learning less commonly taught or very difficult languages, do not learn to read well. In an effort to solve this problem, many teachers are looking for new ways to help students learn reading, by its nature an essentially personal endeavor, outside the classroom. To assist in this effort, we researched current methods of helping students learn to read in a second language, and then created an Arabic reading program for students at Brigham Young University.
We began this project by observing beginning students reading Arabic. From our observations, we found that students would often labor over a single sentence for quite some time, sounding out and looking up each word, and at the end say, “I now understand every word in the sentence, but don’t understand the overall meaning.” We also found that students would often get frustrated over not knowing words that, in the end, were not essential to them comprehending the text. With these problems in mind, we began researching current methodologies and the cognitive process of reading to help us develop our reading program.
After this initial stage of research and observation, we constructed a web-based program. To counteract the aforementioned problems, and in accordance with current reading teaching methodologies , we included in the program a short introduction on reading methodologies, and also a short introduction in English before each article to help the students approach the article with a context for understanding already formed in their heads. Additionally, we encouraged the students to not use their dictionaries while reading. This, we explained, would only slow them down and impede the process of comprehension. We highlighted and provided links to the translations of new vocabulary words that were essential to their comprehension of the text. We also provided questions that led them through the text, guiding them in what they should look for. We instructed them to read as quickly as possible, skipping the unfamiliar words unless they were highlighted, and answering all the questions they could. We introduced this program to Brigham Young University’s Arabic 102 class, gave the students a survey to fill out after completing their reading, and then observed some of them using the program.
Observing students use this program really opened our eyes. Among other things, we learned that people do not easily change old habits; many of the students quickly glanced over our carefully crafted introduction on our new approach to reading the text, and then approached the text like usual: painstakingly analyzing each word and not understanding much. We realized that our program would need some way to push the students into using correct methodologies.
After much additional reading and debate, we decided to included a timer on the program – one that flashed the students a message after an allotted time of activity, offering them help (and also reminding them to continue reading and not get stuck on individual, unfamiliar words). We also designed our questions to allow the students to take “passes” at understanding each topic, starting with easy questions that progressively got more difficult. We then released the program again. The feedback from this release will help us in future endeavors.
Along the way we faced many challenges and learned some important lessons. In particular, we had challenges getting the computer programmers to create what we envisioned in our minds. In fact, the final product is still not quite as we had envisioned it . We also learned that technologybased programs alone are not immediate helps for students – they can only facilitate learning insofar as their designers base them upon sound research and principles. Hyper-links, for example, while interesting, do not necessarily help students learn to read. Professor Belnap served as a great guide in helping us come to this and other realizations.
While our findings are many, we still have a long way to go in developing an Arabic reading program that will efficiently facilitate learning outside the classroom. The data we collected from our surveys and observations is a good start, but more empirically based data is needed to correctly assess the value of ours and other programs. Overall, the learning experience provided by this Office of Research and Creative Activities grant taught us many great things and started us down a path that will hopefully lead to even greater things in the future.
For more on the methodologies that we used, see:
Richard B. Day, and Julian Bamford, Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998: 12-4.
The most current version of our program can be found on the web at http://zola.byu.edu/arabic.
Another version of the program, one of our earlier prototypes, can also still be found on the web at http://home.byu.net/~srr29/orca.