At IATEFL Harrogate I watched a presentation which went a long way towards answering a question I posed on this blog a while back: How can we help Arabic learners with their huge problems with spelling in English? It was given by Emina Tuzovic, and she kindly agreed to write a guest post sharing her tips for my blog. What with one thing and another, it’s been a while in coming (she finished it for me 6 months ago!) but I hope it was worth the wait!
A couple of tips on how to improve spelling in Arabic learners
Any TEFL teacher who has experience teaching Arabic learners is acquainted with the difficulties they face when it comes to spelling. I would like to share some spelling tips which helped my Arabic students improve this skill.
First of all, I would pre-teach what vowels, consonants and syllables are as well as highlight the difference between sounds and letters. This is important for Arabic learners as when they learn English, they need to deal with the following:
- a new script;
- numerous spelling patterns;
- a complex and very often unpredictable system of mapping sounds onto letters (Arabic has a regular 1-1 sound-letter conversion);
- a different reading direction (Arabic is written from right to left).
Therefore using the appropriate ‘labels’ will make your explanations much clearer. Also don’t forget that a phonemic chart looks like another script for this group of learners. Therefore I tend to avoid it if I can, especially transcriptions of whole words. Instead of writing a phonemic on the board, I prefer writing another, high-frequency word with the same pronunciation of a sound in question, e.g. moon; rude (/u:/).
As you have probably noticed it is the spelling of vowels that creates most difficulties for Arabic students. One of the most effective tasks for this group is simply gapping the vowels: e.g. _xc_pt (except) vs _cc_pt (accept).
‘Problematic vowels’ are down to L1 interference. Firstly, in Arabic short vowels are in most cases not written down but only indicated by diacritics. For that reason, they are frequently glossed over by the students when they read in English (which consequently results in the poor spelling of vowels). Secondly, Arabic only has three long and three short vowels in comparison to English (5 vowel letters and 20 sounds!).
Therefore when I board new vocabulary (especially multi-syllable words), I mark vowels with a colour pen and break the words down into syllables which I subsequently drill in isolation. This is very important as many Arabic students will otherwise either guess the vowel or simply omit it when trying to read a new word.
Breaking down words into CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) patterns is also important as it helps students visually memorise lexical items. I try to encourage my students to practise words by writing them down, not typing them up on the computer. This will help them consolidate the visual form of the words which is absolutely vital if you want to be a good speller! (e.g. they need to see how differently words such as play and blue look like). I also try to get the students not to only copy the word but use the Look, remember, cover, write, check method. I get them to look at a word for about 20 seconds and try to memorise it before covering and then trying to recall it. In this way you know the students have used their processing skills to retain the item instead of just copying it.
As teachers, when we teach spelling, we tend to focus too much on spelling and pronunciation irregularities (e.g. plough, cough, etc.) rather than teaching spelling patterns. If you need to check these and the rules associated with them, I suggest using the guide on the Oxford Dictionaries website. In relation to this, I try to get my students to notice the most common letter strings (e.g. sh, ch, spr, ure, etc.) and encourage ‘active reading’ where they look for letter strings and spelling patterns. When they record vocabulary, encourage the use of spelling logs as a separate section of students’ vocabulary books (based on a spelling pattern, e.g. ie vs ei, rather than just randomly recorded vocabulary).
When revising new lexis, I sometimes use magnetic letter strings (rather than only letters) which I simply ordered off Amazon! Here is the link if you’d like to buy your own magnetic letters [affiliate link, so Sandy gets a few pennies if you order here!]
To get a closer insight into spelling games based on spelling patters, I would recommend Shemesh & Waller’s Teaching English Spelling [affiliate link].
[Note from Sandy: another good spelling book is Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners by Johanna Stirling]
Building up confidence
I have noticed that my Arabic learners are well aware of their poor spelling. In order to build up their confidence, they need to be shown that they have made progress.
I usually set up a routine: for the first or last 5 minutes of the class we revise vocabulary from the previous day (e.g. spelling bee) or I might give them a spelling test either every day or every other day. In this way they will soon get the sense of achievement.
I also try to praise my students for using a correct pattern (e.g. *reech, *shef, etc.) even though the word might not be spelled correctly.
When it comes to spelling, morphology plays a very important role, too. Highlight the root, suffixes and prefixes of a word and encourage students to create word families. Based on their L1, Arabic learners will be familiar/will be able to relate to this concept/aspect of learning the new vocabulary.
Avoid the following…
One of the common spelling activities you find in various coursebook is unjumbling letters (e.g. *fnsniuoco-confusion). However I would not advise these exercises for Arabic learners. Individual letters shuffled around might only confuse them as these exercises do not contribute to consolidating the visual form of a word.
Another exercise which particularly lower-level Arabic learners might not find useful is crosswords for the same reason as listed above (words are often presented vertically and in divided block form).
Spelling games on the computer
Students can check the following useful websites if they want to practise spelling in their own time:
This task is particularly of interest for Arabic learners as there are a lot of vowel changes between the three verb forms (e.g. drink-drank-drunk).
The first two tasks in the next group are very useful for consolidating the visual form of the word:
- Catch the spelling
- Look, cover, write, check
- Spelling quiz (check the ‘letter patterns’ section)
- Spelling quiz
If students enjoy playing spelling bees, spellbee.org is an option. However, you need to register.
In terms of spelling software (which has to be downloaded on your computer), there is a lot to choose from. However, the vast majority is designed for native English speaking children and is therefore not the best tool for ESL learners. After having done some research into those, I’d recommend ‘Speak n Spell’. Although there are some issues with the audio, it’s still worth having a look.
Other useful websites
This is an excellent website by Johanna Stirling which gives tips on how to improve spelling in Arabic as well as Chinese speakers.
THRASS chart (phonics chart): Although this chart is not free (from £2), it’s a very useful tool to memorise phonics and consequently spelling patterns.
To my knowledge not much has been published to solely cater to Arabic learners’ difficulties in spelling. In the classroom I frequently use Harrison, R. (1990; 1992) Keep Writing 1 and Keep Writing 2, published by Longman [affiliate links]. These books are specifically aimed at helping Arabic learners with their writing. At the end of each chapter you can find spelling exercises.
By incorporating the things mentioned above in my lessons, my Arabic students managed to considerably improve their spelling in a fairly short period of time. I hope you find these tips useful too! You can write to me on email@example.com.
- Harrison, R. (1990; 1992). Keep Writing 1 and 2. Longman.
- Shemesh & Waller (2000). Teaching English Spelling. CUP.
- Stirling, J. (2003). Remedial Spelling in EFL. Johanna Stirling’s English Language Garden
I’m currently teaching at the London School of English
I’m Delta-trained and doing my PhD in visual word recognition and recall in Arabic ESL learners at Birkbeck College, University of London.