Fun. Loving. Generous. Outspoken. Hardworking. Community-oriented. These are just a few of the ways I have heard speakers of Arabic described over the last four years. A few words that I would add to the list include: diligent and resilient with a never-give-up attitude. As it has become more popular for Arabic-speakers to enter American universities over the last ten years, an increasing number of students come first to study the language and then to obtain some form of higher education. I, Jaime Parry, have been an English instructor at several different Intensive English Language Programs in the northeastern United States since 2008. Having worked with countless students from a variety of countries, I have noticed a difficult trend; Arabic speakers are often held back due to their lack of reading and writing skills. Despite this, they always persevere and just last year I was able to congratulate several of my former Saudi Arabian students as they graduated with their Master’s Degrees from an American university. It was such a great moment. Knowing where the students began in their journey and what they had accomplished has given me deep pride and admiration for them and their efforts. This culminating moment of success was not without its struggles, however. As a teacher, there have been many days where I have felt just as frustrated as some students. I have often thought that there must be a more effective way to teach reading and writing to speakers of Arabic.
Last year, Reading Horizons offered me the opportunity to use their reading software to conduct some research among the adult Arabic speaking population at an Intensive English Language Program. I have just finished my second 7-week session with the software and am very pleased with the results. This session I had 8 adults in my reading class: 1 Vietnamese male, 4 Saudi Arabian females, and 3 Saudi Arabian males. We did not complete the program; however, the students experienced a deeper understanding of sound-letter correspondence in English. The students loved the ‘magic’ of the 5 phonetic skills as they worked their way through the program; they loved seeing that they could see a word and KNOW how to figure out its sound. Since I teach reading and writing to the same class, I was able to apply the rules in their writing as well. For example, the students had to write a paragraph about a place they wanted to visit. Several students chose Times Square in New York. In their paragraphs three out of four of them misspelled Time as ‘taim’. We applied the phonetic rules and discovered that what they wrote did not say what they wanted it to. We had several attempts to spell the word correctly: tiem and then the accurate one, time. The students were proud of their success and it reinforced confidence in their abilities.
In addition to the phonetic skills, the students found a great amount of success in learning the two decoding skills. At the end of the decoding skills chapter, of which we had to omit a lot due to time constraints, I could not believe the students’ ability to decode two, three, four, and five syllable words! It was really incredible. The students thought I was ridiculous with the amount of excitement I displayed, but they are unaware of what I have seen other students at much higher levels do with multi-syllabic words. One reason Arabic speakers may have more difficulty with multi-syllabic words is that in their L1, most words “are less than six characters long” (Randall & Meara, 1991, p. 135). By giving the students decoding or word attack skills, they were able to have more success when faced with long words in English. In the postassessment, I found that when the students who took the Reading Horizons class ran out of time on a word, they were often able to decode the word after the time ran out. Also, if they got the word incorrect because of an error, they wanted to know why or they would explain the rules they followed to come to the conclusion they had. This was a very big difference in behavior from the pre-assessment. During the pre-assessment, many would come to a long word, become intimidated and throw out a guess that was often very wrong. This suggests to me that the students gained a sense of confidence in their own reading abilities because they defended their answers.
The students loved the Reading Horizons program. One student said he did more homework because he knew his teacher could see not only what he did but how much time he invested in it. Another student loved the vocabulary section of the program; he enjoyed reading the words, seeing the pictures, and reading the example sentences. All of the students loved the freedom of the reading library, where they could select readings of their own choice and level. All in all, I would highly recommend the Reading Horizons program for adult learners of English.