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Posts tagged ‘L1 interference’

You cannot run before you can walk – reading in Arabic EFL learners (guest post)

I’m very happy to be able to share another guest post by Emina Tuzovic with you. The first time she appeared on this blog, she wrote about how to help Arabic students with their spelling. Now she’s back to tell us more about working with Arabic students, this time focussing on helping them develop their reading skills.

In the UK, a growing number of Arabic learners are joining English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and IELTS courses as they would like to enter British universities. Generally speaking, this group of students tend to have very good communicative skills; however, they considerably lag behind when it comes to reading and writing. As in the Anglo-American educational system, these skills are paramount, Arabic learners tend to struggle with their studies here. As a teacher, I often felt I didn’t know how to cater to their needs which led me to research this topic in more detail. In this blog post, I’m going to focus on reading and give you some tips which will hopefully help your Arabic learners improve this vital everyday, as well as academic, skill.

Now, think about how many times you have asked your students to skim or scan an academic text. While most of the students get to grips with the task, our Arabic students generally struggle with this. So how to tackle this problem?

I think what we teachers need to do is break things down instead of throwing our students in at the deep end. We should start with reading words, before moving on to reading sentences, paragraphs and finally the whole text. If we build things up, reading will suddenly become a less daunting process for our Arabic learners.

There are several reasons why they find reading challenging. Firstly, how much students read in their L1 usually predicts how much reading they do in their L2. Judging from what my Arabic students tell me, they don’t read that much in their mother tongue. This is reflected in their reading habits in English, where suddenly they are faced with a different script and a different orthography, as well as a different reading direction – all of these making the reading process much more challenging. As they lack exposure to print, they often do not accumulate a sufficient range of vocabulary. This, in turn, affects their reading comprehension, which is the reason why they do not want to read in the first place! This vicious circle needs to be broken.

Let’s start from the beginning. We need to tackle words in isolation first.

Vocabulary and word decoding

As we said above, vocabulary size plays a significant role in our students’ reading comprehension. Lack of vocabulary slows down the reading process and hinders their understanding of the text. Additionally, when I ask my Arabic students to read something for homework, they will often translate a lot of words, most of which are low frequency and therefore not very useful:

Translations by an Arabic-speaking reader of English

Therefore, in order to catch up with other groups of learners, I think it’s important for a teacher to prioritise useful, higher frequency lexis and monitor what vocabulary students actually record. For instance, I usually check the words they have selected during a speaking activity. I allow my students to look up no more than ten words per text which will force them to prioritise vocabulary that is worth looking up!

Secondly, like all other learners, they need to be able to guess unknown lexis from the context. One of the most useful lexical aspects for this group to focus on is word formation. It is a very important lexical process in Arabic therefore our learners will be able to identify with it. So whenever possible, I get them to extrapolate the root, notice any affixation and derive other parts of speech:

Word formation example

I would also strongly suggest pre-teaching vocabulary before reading a text. The next day you could do a spelling exercise as vocabulary revision. You can give your students an initial letter string with the exact number of gaps and get them to produce the word they learnt the day before:

  • st_ _ _ _ _ _ _ (strenuous)
  • acc _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (accidental)
  • sl_ _ _ (slope)

[Read more about how to help students with spelling in Emina’s previous post, and find out more about why it’s a particularly difficult problem for Arabic learners in one of my posts.]

Word decoding

Another reason for poor reading skills in Arabic learners is slow and inaccurate processing of words, (word decoding). When it comes to multisyllabic lexical items, my Arabic students often read the beginning of the word and then unsuccessfully predict the rest of it. Also, it is not uncommon that words get confused with similar lexical items (negative L1 transfer). This group of learners will tend to focus on consonants so century might become country, revelation becomes reflection, etc.

To fix this problem, one of the most important exercises to recycle vocabulary would be gapping vowels. This will help them not only to improve their spelling but also their word decoding:

  • c_rt_n               (carton)
  • _xh_b_t_ _n   (exhibition)
  • _cc_l_r_t_       (accelerate)

I think it is also essential for Arabic learners to learn to divide words into syllables which will also markedly improve their word processing (e.g. con-se-quence). They can clap/tap syllables and while doing so. I ask them not to look at the words as irregular spelling patterns will only confuse them (e.g. just think about how we pronounce common words containing ‘ea’ – meat, learn and heart).

Overall, I believe, starting with vocabulary accuracy is paramount. Once the visual form of the word is consolidated, students will decode it more quickly and as a result, they will eventually get faster at reading.

Sentence level

Besides working on accurate word decoding, I get my students to focus on the sentence structure at the same time. I think it’s really important to pre-teach sentence elements (S-V-O: subject-verb-object) and parts of speech (noun (n), verb (v), adjective (adj), etc.) as this will immensely help our learners ‘decipher’ long sentences and orientate themselves in a text. ‘Grammatical labels’ might seem superfluous; however, I’ve noticed once the students get the hang of those, it’s much easier for me to give instructions and explain various grammatical structures e.g. passive, relative clauses, participles, etc. As students gain the knowledge of the sentence structure, they will start processing sentences faster.

Another thing I do is give students the beginning of a sentence which they have to finish e.g. I went to the shop (to)…; My car stopped in the middle of the road (because)…. This is how they learn to predict the content and increase their reading speed.

Last but not least, it is already at sentence level that I get my Arabic learners to start noticing punctuation. We often analyse sentences and I get my students to answer the following questions:

  • Is there a capital letter? (Where is it? Why is it there?)
  • Is there a full stop? (Where is it? Why is it there?)
  • Is there a comma? Why is it there? (How is it different from a full stop?)

Try to do it every day (or as often as possible) until you see your Arabic students use capital letters and full stops automatically in their writing. While analysing the sentence(s) in terms of punctuation, you can also ask them to find the subject, verb, etc.

Complex sentences

In EAP and IELTS classes I have noticed that it helps a lot if we break down complex sentences. I get my Arabic learners to pay special attention to subordinate linkers (if, when, in spite of; however, etc.) as these do not feature very prominently in Arabic. After they have grasped the concept of sentence elements and parts of speech, I get them to focus on complex noun groups (consisting of head nouns, prepositional phrases, (reduced) relative clauses, etc.) as well as to notice the difference between active and passive. For example, I put a complex sentence on the board:

One surprising factor is the willingness with which the public in most countries accept the by now well-known risk of developing lung cancer in spite of the evidence of its connection with cigarette smoking published by WHO.

Taken from Nuttall (1989)

They can answer these questions either individually or in pairs:

  • Mark the beginning and the end of the sentence with a double-slash.
  • Can you find the linker? What does it express?
  • Divide the sentence into two clauses.
  • Can you find the head noun? Which verb goes with it?
  • What is additional information? Use a slash (or underline it)
  • Is published by WHO active or passive?             (passive)
  • What is missing before published by WHO?     (which was)

So in the end, we get something like this:

//One surprising factor is the willingness/ with which /the public in most countries accept/ the by now well-known risk /of developing lung cancer

in spite of the evidence/ of its connection with cigarette smoking / published by WHO.//

I try to stick to colour-coding and always use one colour for nouns, another one for verbs, etc.

Afterwards I give students another complex sentence which they have to break down answering the same questions as the ones in the grid. Alternatively, you can give them the key words beforehand and get the learners to develop their idea(s) of how to build it into a sentence first:

factor…willingness…public…accept …risk…lung cancer… in spite of…connection…smoking

How to extend the activity: After they’ve received, read and analysed the complex sentence in detail, you can ask them to cover it and go back to the key words. Now they have to try to produce the complex sentence just by looking at the key words. This will additionally consolidate their awareness of the English sentence structure.

Paragraph and text level

The analysis of punctuation continues when we read paragraphs and subsequently texts. If you teach multilingual classes, you can give these questions to your Arabic students separately on a piece of paper and tell them they need to answer the questions every time they read a text for homework.

  • How many full stops are there?
  • How many sentences are there?
  • Do all the sentences start with a big letter?
  • How many commas are there? Why are they used?
  • How many linkers can you see? Circle them.
  • How many paragraphs are there?

It’s particularly important for this group of learners to become exposed to whole paragraphs and texts as soon as possible. In this way they will be able to internalise the structure of a paragraph/a text which will also help them with their writing.

In order to generate interest in a text and for Arabic students to be able to identify with the topic, I would suggest tackling familiar topics for them (e.g. family and relationships, food, technology, customs and habits, weather, travel and transport, etc). In a multilingual class, I usually get non-Arabic students to explain various cultural references to them (e.g. the Beatles).

Other elements which slow down their reading

We’ve probably all witnessed many of our Arabic students using their finger in order to read in a line. To help them drop this habit (apart from the obvious: Don’t use your finger!), I would first of all use regular typeface, such as Calibri or Arial (not the ornate ones that look like script!), as well as font size 12+ as this will genuinely improve their word decoding skills and consequently their processing speed.

In order to help them follow the text on the line as well as to monitor their speed, I would get the students to use a ‘mask’ (see below). This will also discourage them from using their finger!

Mask for reading

Taken from: Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language by Nuttall (1989)

You can make it yourself by cutting a window in a sheet of paper. Get them to place it over the line and as they read, and pull it down to uncover the remaining text.

Another prominent feature which slows down our Arabic learners is subvocalisation (pronouncing words under their breath). Reading aloud and subvocalisation are commonly used when reading in Arabic, therefore this, in many ways cultural difference, needs to be pointed out early on in their learning process.

In order to read faster, as we all know, predicting the content is vital. I have noticed that stories often go down very well with Arabic learners. I give them a text and ask them to read the first paragraph. Afterwards they need to predict what will happen in the next paragraph, etc.:

It was a cold, dark night

Taken from: New English File Pre-Intermediate by Oxenden et al. (2011)

You can also give them a series of pictures and ask them to explain to their partners what they think happened before they read the story.

Extension of this activity: Afterwards they cover the text and tell each other the same story but this time in more detail, based on what they have read.


So we’ve finally come to the notorious skimming. This technique works well with students who are competent readers in their L1 and who can successfully transfer their reading skills into their L2. Apart from expanding lexis, if we want Arabic-speaking students to improve their skimming and pick up their reading speed, our students also need to learn to ignore non-key, usually low-frequency words and just continue reading!

I choose a text and gap every eighth word in it, next time every seventh, sixth word, etc.:

Read the text. Ignore the gaps.

Grace Simmons is only fourteen, and she speaks French, but she’s famous in Paris. She’s become a _______ model for a well-known _______ designer. Grace is from _____, Michigan. Her father is ______ car salesperson and her ______ is a teacher. Grace_____very unhappy as a _____ girl because she was _____ tall-almost six feet. _____ other children laughed at_____all the time and ______ had very few friends. ______ she was eleven years _____, Grace’s mother took her ______ a modelling school.

Taken from: More Reading Power by Mikulecky & Jeffries (2004).

How many words you gap depends on the students’ level and the lexical density of a text (the denser the text, the fewer the gaps). You can also gap grammatical words (determiners, prepositions, etc.) as well as adjectives and adverbs (basically words which are not absolutely essential to understand a text).

When we get our Arabic students to attempt to skim a text, I recommend selecting texts which are considerably below their oral level of proficiency. I don’t think there is much point in getting them to skim a text which contains a lot of lexis unknown to them. Another piece of advice would be, as mentioned before, to pre-teach new vocabulary.

I also get my students to skim a text more than once. But the most important thing is that they get into the habit of doing it on a daily basis, either in class or at home or even both! I also get them to time themselves and write down how long it took them to skim a text the first time, second time, etc.

Last but not least, it’s very useful to set up a reading routine. You can get them to choose the texts they want to read in their free time. I usually put a grid on the wall where they write down what they read the day before:

Reading grid

To recap…

Reading is a very complex cognitive process which requires a long time to ‘master’. Our Arabic speakers are in many ways disadvantaged as when reading in English, they are faced with a completely different writing system alongside considerable linguistic as well cultural differences (e.g. knowledge of the world; various cultural references) which influence their reading in English.

I believe we can help our Arabic learners a lot if we break things down, starting with words in isolation before moving on to higher levels of processing. In the same vein, I think accurate word decoding should be tackled before working on reading speed.

After skimming for the gist, I think it’s vital to do the post-reading analysis in terms of:

  • prioritising vocabulary and breaking the words down into syllables;
  • guessing key vocabulary from the context;
  • analysing the sentence structure (especially in complex sentences);
  • analysing how ideas are developed in each paragraph and in a text as a whole;
  • analysing punctuation.

All of these things will help our Arabic students improve their accuracy and speed when reading. This will build up their confidence which will motivate them to read more in their free time. And we all know developing extensive reading is paramount if you want to become a competent reader!

After employing all the strategies that I have outlined in this blogpost, the reading skills in my Arabic learners have improved significantly within a fairly short period of time. It did require a lot of time and effort on both sides but as I always say, hard work pays off! So in the end, the majority of my students got significantly higher scores in their IELTS reading as well as their writing, which got them a step closer to getting into a university of their choice. Vicious circle broken, mission accomplished! 🙂


  • Mikulecky, B.S. & Jeffries, L. (2004) More Reading Power (second edition) Longman
  • Nuttall, C. (1989) Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language Heinemann
  • Oxenden, C.; Latham-Koenig, C.; Seligson, P. & Clanfield, L. (2011) New English File Pre-intermediate Teacher’s Book OUP

About Emina

Emina Tuzović works as an English language teacher at the London School of English, predominantly on EAP, ESP and exam preparation courses. She has designed an online spelling module for Arabic learners of English for CUP as well as reviewed various syllabuses for spelling materials for the Middle-East market. She is currently completing the final year of a PhD on word recognition and orthographic awareness in Arabic learners of English at Birkbeck College, London.


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,

“Every weekend I go on the cottage in the nature” (a.k.a. translations to combat L1 (Czech) interference and learn idioms)

The sentence in the title above is beloved of English teachers across the Czech Republic. It’s all due to L1 interference, as with many of these things. One of my classes asked me to help them notice their Czenglish mistakes and try to do something about them. I looked back over old writing and speaking notes and asked around in the staffroom to collate a list of common mistakes, then created the first three sets of materials below.

I asked the students to translate their versions of each group of sentences, trying to write small enough that they could write corrections in the box if necessary (I told them they would get a ‘clean’ version of the sheet later). I then showed them each group of words on the Powerpoint presentation and drilled any difficult sentences / any which they had all made a mistake with. We talked about why Czech people make these mistakes (on a sentence-by-sentence basis) and I encouraged them to highlight anything which they got wrong and need to learn. We also discussed the Czech equivalents (I crowdsourced these from my Czech friends on facebook, so feel free to correct any mistakes you find!). I sent them the presentation after the lesson so that they can look at it whenever they like.

Czech sentences for students to translate

Common Czenglish mistakes and how to correct them

Czenglish Powerpoint presentation

The second set of materials were adapted from the fascinating Omniglot website. I had to edit some of the English on there as not all of them were correctly translated. This was a final ‘fun’ lesson with a CAE group and we spent a long time discussing how to use the idioms and whether there are differences between the use of the equivalents in Czech and English. First, they attempted to translate any of the idioms which they knew already (not many!). I had cut up the ‘answers’ cards before class. They used them to find the rest of the phrases and checked them against my master list.

Czech idioms and their English equivalents (worksheet)

Czech idioms and their English equivalents (answers)

The final step was to play a game I learnt from Anette Igel. Lay the cards out as a board game, with the Czech on one side and the English on the other (back-to-back). Take a counter. Roll the die, move the counter, then translate the idiom you land on to the other language. For instance, if you land on “knedlik v krku”, you have to say “a frog in my throat”. If you are right, turn the card over so you can see the English side. The next person to land on it has to translate it back into Czech. We decided to award one point for each complete circle of the board you did. I lost by quite a long way 😉

The students really enjoyed playing the game, and learnt some more colourful language on the way.

Anette's translation game

Feel free to download / adapt these in any way you choose, and if you need any help or would like to know how to do a similar thing with your local language, please let me know in the comments below.


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