The special case of Arabic

At IH Newcastle, we have a relatively high proportion of Arabic mother-tongue students. In my experience, one of the biggest problems they have is with spelling in English, which causes them trouble with both reading and writing. I have tried many strategies to help them to improve in this area, including recommending Quizlet and the read-say-spell, cover-write-check method which was one of the ways I was taught to spell in English. These have had limited success, and until today I didn’t really know why.
I’ve just come across a section entitled ‘The Special Case of Arabic’ by Ann Ryan of the University of Wales, Swansea (in Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy edited by Norbert Schmitt and Michael McCarthy, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp.184-192). She gives examples such as:

  • we get water from deep wheels (wells)
  • you get upstairs in a left (lift)
  • I met my friend in the model of the square (middle)

These examples immediately struck a chord. I had always put such problems down to poor spelling-pronunciation awareness in the learners, but could never understand why these seemed to be so much greater for Arabic learners than for those from other languages, even those written in non-Roman scripts.
Ann Ryan’s explains that in Arabic, words are based on a root that normally consists of three consonants, which can be combined with different patterns of vowels to produce word families, for example k-t-b generates maktaba – library, ketaab – book, kataba – he wrote and so on.
She then goes on to show that Arabic speakers often carry this convention over to their English reading and vocabulary learning, meaning that they use consonants to represent English words. Thus, Arabic learners translated the English ‘cruel’ to equivalents meaning ‘curl’ or ‘cereal’; or translated English ‘finish’ to Arabic ‘fishing’.
Arabic speakers also had much greater trouble in identifying when vowels had been deleted from words than when consonants had been deleted. Their reaction time and errors in this experiment were significantly higher than that of Japanese, Thai and Romance speakers. In short, they have a kind of ‘vowel blindness’. As Ann Ryan says:

The problem seems to take the form of ignoring the presence of vowels when storing vocabulary and an almost indiscriminate choice as to which vowel to use when one is needed.

I would recommend reading the full chapter to follow up on my brief paraphrasing and check I haven’t missed anything!

The implications of this for teaching Arabic students are quite serious. If students aren’t seeing the vowels, or aren’t remembering them, this could inhibit their learning greatly. What can we do to help them notice and pay attention to vowels? In short, to help them completely change a cognitive process which is carried over from L1?

As a visual learner, my only current idea would be to give each vowel a colour, e.g. ‘a’ is red, ‘e’ is blue…and encourage learners to use this in class for words which they struggle to discriminate. What do you think? How would you tackle this?

Photo taken from by @notyetlanguage, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

12 thoughts on “The special case of Arabic

  1. Very interesting. I have a high proportion of Kurdish speakers and not much has been written about interference from Kurdish to English, but I recognise the ‘vowel blindness’ described. The same as you, I have tried strategies where they highlight all the vowels in different colours in troublesome words, but I hadn ‘t thought of assigning a different colour to each vowel.


  2. I’ve been thinking about your post a lot Sandy, and trying to think of something useful to say but haven’t come up with much! I’ve taught a lot of Arabic speakers too (both in the UK and Australia). I’ve heard a little about the problems with vowels but never really understood why so thank you for explaining a little. I think the colours for different vowels sounds like an interesting idea, and I’d like to hear how it goes if you try it.
    Several years ago I had a class of all Arabic speakers for a class every afternoon for about 6 months. They had been through several teachers already and had been labelled a ‘difficult’ class and somehow I ended up with them! They were pretty much beginners/false-beginners and the class was supposed to concentrate on writing. The second lesson I had them I decided to take them some lined paper to help them. Well, some of them had it the wrong way round (writing across the lines), some wrote in the middle of the lines… We ended up spending about an hour just practising writing on lines!
    We did a lot of copying with personalisation, a lot of recycling and reviewing but the most success I had was with spelling tests! At the end of every class I would write 12-15 words that had come up in class on the board, they would copy them down and then learn them by the next day when we would start class with a 10 word spelling test. If all the class got 10 out of 10 class was cancelled and we could do whatever they liked (go out, watch a film, play games…) It happened once in 6 months and we had a lovely hour having a walk around Bath in the sun! This isn’t related to vowels specifically but it really helped them concentrate on their spelling. Before they would often copy words down with the wrong spelling but now they were really careful, and because all the class had to get 10 out of 10 they would all help each other (although I would have to be super strict about cheating!). Every day when I came into the classroom they would be testing each other! They started to realise it was important and that having the odd letter wrong DID make a difference (and it appealled to their competitiveness.)
    Anyway, just thought I would share my experience with working on Arabic speakers spelling. Not sure how useful or relevant my essay is though! 😉


    1. Hi Jo,
      Thank you very much for your comment. I’ve done spelling tests with classes before, but never thought of such a good incentive as yours. I’ve never had a whole group of only Arabic students -it’s been close at times, but there have always been one or two others.
      I’ve got a new Arabic student who I explained the theory to. Hopefully we can experiment with a few things too – she has huge problems with spelling.
      Once I’ve finished my Delta, I will try to do some proper action research and see what I can come up with.


  3. Dear Sandy,

    I’m a huge fan of you blog and I’ve been learning a lot since I found out it in the beginning of this year.
    I have never had Arabic students but It was really good to see how the suggestions you made can help me in my reality (in Brazil) too.

    Thank you very much,



  4. So pleased to have found this series of articles on Arabic learners. I have a gorgeous group of four 19 year olds from Kuwait, doing EAP. Two of them have dreadful spelling and I didn’t know how best to help them, but now I have a few ideas to try. I’ll keep you informed !


  5. Thanks for an interesting article! Was aware of the comparatively low presence of vowels in written Arabic, and of the root-system, and I find it fascinating how the beginner (A1-2) students I teach base their spelling, often very logically, on the sounds of English consonants as pronounced in alphabet form eg ltr (letter) brblm (problem), whereby vowel sounds occur in transition. The fact that the sound of the five alphabet vowel letters of English are barely recognisable once they are grouped in words represents a real difficulty for these students. I did a mini research project to see if an increased amount of phonemic training in lessons would make a diff, often using non-words concentrated on phonemes, but the groups were too small to draw any real conclusions. Your idea of assigning colours to vowel letters is something I will try (resurrect the cuisinaire rods!).

    Being illiterate n Arabic, I still work on the anecdotal assumption that written Arabic indicates how words should be pronounced much more closely than does English.



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