What's Taught in Arabic Class?
Majorelle Garden, Morocco

Firstly, we teach that learning a language is fun.  Yes, it certainly has its challenging moments, but through games, group-work, and problem solving skills we learn to engage and acquire the language.

Many of you who have had experiences with learning languages may remember going to class, getting a page of vocabulary with translations and then learning the language through mindless fill-in-the-blank questions and rote memorization.

That was the past for foreign language education; today, however is the future.  While the teaching of Arabic is still a newborn in comparison to other more commonly taught languages like Spanish or French, there is still a lot of new innovation taking place in this pioneering field.

Teachers of Arabic are trying to move beyond rote memorization and typical classroom instruction, where students turn out to be skillful at reading and writing a language, but poor in speaking and listening.  We here in the district focus on listening and speaking skills first, reading and writing skills later.  If we look to the way we acquired our own native languages we realize that as a young child, we could both listen and understand the word “cat” as well as say “cat.”  However, when we joined kindergarten as 5 year-olds, many of us could not read or write the very same word.  We were functional in listening and speaking, before we advanced onto reading and writing. 

The same principle guides our foreign language curricula.  We train our students to develop functional listening and speaking skills, before we focus on reading and writing.  Yes, reading and writing is important, but to a brand new student of Arabic, learning how to read, write, say, and audibly recognize the word “cat” is too many dimensions mashed into one effort.  Spread it out, let the kids enjoy speaking in a different language, and then the motivation will help us conquer reading and writing.

As an example of this, we can look at how the alphabet is taught in Sanford’s Arabic classes.  Most people would think that with a new language, you should start learning the alphabet, and once you’ve learned that, you can begin to read and memorize words.  This is not the case at Sanford.  At Sanford, our students can greet others and introduce themselves before they know a single letter in Arabic.  In fact, the alphabet is broken into chunks and spread across several quarters.  So, over time, the students gradually absorb the alphabet in the meaningful context of words and phrases they already know.

Group-work is a central component of our learning style and we emphasize its role in our classroom because it is the vehicle through which we get the students to practice words and phrases.  Our students regularly develop flashcards that they review in groups to memorize whole words and phrases.  As students progress, they learn to pick apart sentences and paragraphs written in Arabic.  They ask questions, negotiate meaning, and bounce ideas off each other in an effort to understand what they are reading.  It forces them to speak in Arabic and also think about what is being said.  That thinking helps to anchor the information in their heads.  Learning a language is no longer rote memorization.  It is an involved, critical thinking task.

Beyond working on Arabic texts, we utilize games and multimedia to make the class more interesting.  As we begin to finish a unit of new vocabulary and concepts in Arabic, we play competitive games in the classroom that rewards students who have worked hard to learn Arabic.  Games are fun and oftentimes a little-off-the-wall.  Yet like moving gears in a watch, language learning is constantly taking place through the games. 

Multimedia is also a great opportunity to get our learning on in this digital age.  We have phased out projectors and instead use ‘document cameras’ that display anything the teacher puts under the camera onto a screen.  Next, we use videos like the GlobeTrekker series to high light Arab countries and the cultural elements that are demonstrated in the films.  Lastly, we use PowerPoint to bring in pictures of Arab countries and vocabulary so the teacher can use it as a prop to aid language learning.  For example, the students enjoy using pictures of the Flintstone and Simpson families when they learn Arabic vocabulary relating to the family. 

Teaching Arabic is a challenging endeavor, but with student effort and a strange teacher, a class can be transformed into a powerful vehicle for learning.

Pyramids, Egypt