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Review of  Handbook of Arabic Literacy

Reviewer: Kariema El Touny
Book Title: Handbook of Arabic Literacy
Book Author: Elinor Saiegh-Haddad R. Malatesha Joshi
Publisher: Springer Nature
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Issue Number: 26.1402

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Review's Editor: Anthony Aristar


The aim of the book is to explore literacy development in Arabic from several perspectives. As it is presented in the introduction, the authors utilize linguistic, orthographic, cognitive, environmental, and socio-cultural factors in presenting their research, the majority of which are field studies. This volume consists of eighteen articles, distributed over six thematic parts. Part I is an outline of the structure of the Arabic language and its orthography. Part II is morphologically and psycho-linguistically oriented. Part III deals with reading and spelling development and disorders in Arabic. Part IV focuses on Arabic diglosia. Parts V and VI address socio-cultural factors, and literacy development in special populations respectively.

Part I The Arabic Language

The structure of Arabic Language and Orthography
Elinor Saiegh-Haddad and Roni Henkin-Roitfarb

The authors provide a general description of the Arabic language and its orthography to help in understanding the intricate nature of the language from the point of view of literacy . They start with its structure: phonology, phonotactics, morphology, morpho-syntax, and syntax, followed by its orthography. Finally, they discuss Arabic diglossia by comparing Classical and Modern Standard Arabic, literary and spoken varieties of Arabic, and orthographical representations of Standard and spoken Arabic.

Part II Arabic Lexical Representation and Processing

Is the Arabic Mental Lexicon Morpheme-Based or Stem-Based?
Implications for Spoken and Written Word Recognition
Sami Boudelaa

The author uses data from cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and cognitive neuroscience to present the two competing theories of Arabic morphology. On the one hand, the morpheme-based approach views Arabic forms as consisting of a root and a word pattern. On the other, the stem-based approach treats the stem as a basic unit. He discusses their implications on the process by which Arabic words are accessed and stored in the mental lexicon and suggests a better alternative, the Obligatory Morphological Decomposition (OMD). In this, the roots and word patterns of content words in Arabic are treated as lexical entries carrying morpho-syntactic, phonological, semantic, and functional information of the root morphemes. This is followed by a recombination stage to distinguish their individual interpretations.

Word Recognition in Arabic: Approaching a Language-Specific Reading Model
Gunna Funder Hansen

The author gives a concise history of word recognition theory, and questions the universality of the prevailing views in the literature of word recognition processes at the cognitive level during reading. In addition, he outlines and attempts to modify a connectionist word recognition model in order to build a language-specific model for Arabic, focusing on Arabic script and Semitic morphology. In this model, the decoding process relies mainly on orthographic information. Giving the standard short vowel omission in Semitic writing, the reader will not find the phonological information helpful.

Why is it Hard to Read Arabic?
Zohar Eviatar and Raphiq Ibrahim

The authors examine the difficulty both children and skilled readers face in reading Arabic, and view its probable causes from psycholinguistic and neuropsychological points of view. They present the effects of diglossia, where children learn a language they are not fluent in due to its interaction with their spoken one. Furthermore, they argue that the visual characteristics of Arabic orthography limit the right hemisphere (RH) in the brain from contributing to the reading acquisition. Orthographically easier languages, such as English and Hebrew, involve more RH activity than Arabic. The authors attribute some of the difficulty in reading Arabic to the late development of the region in the fusiform gyrus in the left hemisphere in the brain responsible for visually identifying words.

Part III Arabic Reading and Spelling Development and Disorders

An Epidemiological Survey of Specific Reading and Spelling Disabilities in Arabic Speaking Children in Egypt
Wessam Mohamed, Karin Landrel, and Thomas Elbert

The authors present the results of their epidemiological survey, which was conducted on 3rd graders in Egypt. Their aim is to study reading and spelling deficits in Arabic from an orthographical point of view. They start by examining the relationship between reading and spelling skills in general, then more specifically in Arabic. This is followed by an examination of some reading and spelling deficits, such as dyslexia, around the world. They also discuss the prevalence of reading and/or spelling deficits in Arabic.

Types of Development Dyslexia in Arabic
Naama Friedmann and Manar Haddad-Hanna

This study aims at describing the effects of Arabic orthography on the manifestations of dyslexia, and identifying and characterizing types of dyslexia in Arabic. A comprehensive introduction is given on dyslexia, followed by a cataloguing of seven types of developmental dyslexia in Arabic. These are: (1) letter position dyslexia, where middle letters change position within the word. (2) Attentional dyslexia, where the letters migrate to the same position in neighboring words. (3) Visual dyslexia, where letters are omitted, substituted, or added. (4) Neglect dyslexia, where letters are omitted, substituted, or added on one side of the word. (5) Surface dyslexia, where reading is via grapheme-to-phoneme conversion instead of the lexical route. (6) Vowel dyslexia, where vowel letters are omitted, substituted, transposed, or added. (7) Deep dyslexia, where reading errors are semantic, morphological, and visual.

Narrative Development in Arabic: Story Re-Telling
Dorit Ravid, Dina Naoum, and Suheir Nasser

In their study, the authors contribute to the oral narrative development body of research by studying and comparing the characteristics and effects of story re-telling of seven Palestinian Arabic (PA) speaking age groups. These are nursery schoolers (4-5), kindergarteners (5-6), 1st graders (6-7), 2nd graders (7-8), 4th graders (9-10), 7th graders (12-13), and adults. The participants were told a story in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and were asked to re-tell it in PA. They are assessed for: intervention i.e. the number of prompts used by the investigator(s), text size, linguistic indicators, such as morpho-syntactic errors, text content and structure, referencing, and the lexicon used.

Cognitive Predictors of Early Reading Ability in Arabic: a Longitudal Study from Kindergarten to Grade 2
Hanadi Abu Ahmad, Raphiq Ibrahim, and David L. Share

The authors utilize data collected through tests on Arabic native speaking children from the end of kindergarten to the beginning of Grade 2. Their work explores the mechanisms of early reading acquisition by comparing two sets of data. The first set is the effects of intra-lexical factors, such as phonological processing and visual-orthographic processing, and supra-lexical factors, such as syntax and working memory of kindergarteners. The second is individual differences in word recognition and reading comprehension of 2nd graders.

Part IV Arabic Diglossia, Language, and Literacy

The Effect of Diglossia on Literacy in Arabic and Other Languages
John Myhill

The author discusses the reasons behind the low literacy rates in Arabic-speaking countries given their wealth. Collectively, the 16 Arabic-speaking countries take an average ranking of 72 in GDP per capita. He attributes this situation to the teaching of an official version of Arabic, with a specific script, that is different from the one spoken by the children. As a proposed solution, he advocates implementing the strategy adopted for other languages, such as Chinese and Japanese. In it, 3rd and 4th graders should be tested for literacy based on written phonological representations of their spoken dialect rather than Standard Arabic, which will be introduced to them once they can discern the difference. This strategy elevated the literacy rate in China to 93.3%, which is higher than expected from a country holding the 99th position in GDP per capita.

Acquiring Literacy in a Diglossic Context: Problems and Prospects
Elinor Saiegh-Haddad and Bernard Spolsky

The authors present the intricate relationship between literacy in the standard, official language and literacy practices in the vernacular by listing some problems and proposed solutions. A pedagogical problem arises when the language the child uses at home is quite different from the one expected to be mastered at school. They observe that initial instruction in the vernacular has proved to be successful, for example Indian children in Chiapas, and suggest the use of a reading program called Exposure through Reading Program (ERP) to enhance linguistic proficiency in Standard Arabic. The program’s objectives are: (1) making lists of the common words in the Spoken Arabic and Standard Arabic. (2) Making lists of lexically and phonologically-related words. (3) Providing morphological coding of the lexical basis of Spoken and Standard Arabic. (4) Qualifying and quantifying the lexical gap between Spoken and Standard Arabic.

A New Look at Diglossia: Modality-Driven Distinctions between Spoken and Written Narratives in Jordanian Arabic
Lior Laks and Ruth A. Berman

The authors use written and spoken data collected from native Jordanian Arabic (JA) speakers to examine the grammatical differences between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Jordanian Arabic. They focus on two main aspects: case marking and nominalization. The former is evident in the use of case markers, a standard practice in writing MSA, in written JA. The latter is evident in the abundant use of nominalizations in the written JA as opposed to their less frequent use in the spoken. The results of this study could be used in current research on Arabic dialectology and language pedagogy.

Literacy Acquisition and Diglossia: Textbooks in Israeli Arabic-Speaking Schools
Judith Rosenhouse

The author compares and contrasts the grammatical elements of Colloquial Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic in language textbooks, and builds this work on her previous 1986 collaboration with Shehadi. In 1986, she studied 1st and 2nd grade books, the current study includes 1st, 2nd, 4th, 8th, and 11th grade books. The vocabulary and almost twenty morphological and syntactic forms are examined with the conclusion that not only is there difference in book formatting, but also in linguistics structure, content, and exercises. The comparison between the two studies shows the modernization of current curriculum design.

The Development of ADAT (Arabic Diglossic Knowledge and Awareness Test): A theoretical and clinical overview
Reem Khamis-Dakwar and Baha Makhoul

To help face the ongoing challenges met by professionals assessing children’s learning skills in a diglossic environment, the authors give an outline to the Arabic Diglossic Knowledge and Awareness Test (ADAT). The test assesses the diglossic and metadiglossic knowledge at the elementary school level in both Standard Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic. It includes receptive vocabulary assessment, morphosyntactic knowledge assessment, phonological diglossic awareness, sociolinguistic knowledge of diglossia, and a narrative sample. Its aim is identifying both the set of linguistic skills children acquire naturally in a diglossic environment, and those needed to successfully learn to read and write in similar situations.

Part V Arabic Emergent Literacy: Socio-Cultural Factors

The Development of Young Children’s Arabic Language and Literacy in the United Arab Emirates
Sana Tibi and Lorraine McLeod

The authors report on the ‘New School Model’ implemented in the emirate of Abu Dhabi by the Abu Dhabi Education Council whereby children will learn Arabic and English from kindergarten through the years of compulsory schooling. They examine its consequences on young children’s emergent literacy, such as bilingualism, diglossia, and writing skills. They also offer recommendations for policy makers, strategic planners, teachers, and families. For example, increasing the allocated time for teaching Arabic, encouraging children to use their native language and feel proud doing so.

Mother-Child Literacy Activities and early Literacy in the Israeli Arab Family
Ofra Korat, Dorit Aram, Shafieh Hassunha-Arafat,
Himat Hag-Yehiya Iraqi, and Elinor Saiegh-Haddad

The authors choose two literacy activities, storybook reading and joint word writing, to study language and literacy development of Israeli Arabic speaking kindergarteners in their home environment. The results show that the difficulties mothers face in mediating the written language are due to the linguistic gap between Standard Arabic and the spoken variety.

Part IV Arabic Literacy Development in Special Populations

Environmental Contributions to Language and Literacy Outcomes in Bilingual English-Arabic Children in the U.S.
Lama K. Farran, Gary E. Bingham, and Mona W. Matthews

The authors study the role the home environment plays on bilingual English-Arabic speaking children both male and female, grades 3-5, and of diverse ethnic backgrounds. They examine several aspects such as parent education, their beliefs, home language use, and literacy practices. The results show two core relationships. The first is between parent home language use and the child’s reading, morphological awareness, and vocabulary skills in Arabic. For example, the authors deduce that parental support using books written in vowelized Arabic increases vowelized word reading accuracy. The second is between home literacy practices and reading comprehension skills in Arabic. They conclude that parents’ use of the Spoken variety, while texts are written in MSA, does not increase children’s reading comprehension. They also offer suggestions for research, instruction, early intervention, and language and reading disorders prevention.

The Development of Grapho-Phonemic Representations among Native Hebrew Speakers Learning Arabic as a Foreign Language
Susie Russak and Alon Fragman

The authors present the results of two studies dealing with spelling errors among native Hebrew-speaking pupils. The first study is of 8th graders in their second year of formal Standard Arabic learning. The second study is of 8th, 9th, and 10th graders. The studies show that although Arabic and Hebrew have a common etymological background, the differences and frequency of some linguistic features combined with Arabic orthographical and phonological aspects make writing Arabic as a foreign language (AFL) a difficult task even with prolonged exposure. For example, the authors examine spelling difficulties experienced by Hebrew speakers, four years into studying AFL.

Braille Reading in Blind and Sighted Individuals: Educational Considerations and Experimental Evidence
Waleed Jarjoura and Avi Karni

The authors present and discuss the results of their study of Braille reading accuracy and speed in three age groups of Arab speakers in Israel: 10(2.5) in elementary school, 16(1.7) in high school, and 23(2.6) year olds. They compare Arabic Braille readers to their counterparts of English Braille readers. They also discuss the role of Arabic Braille orthography and vowelized vs. unvowelized texts on the speed and accuracy rates.


This volume is a helpful guide to researchers of not only Arabic literacy and Diglossia, but also of sociolinguistics, learning disorders, and especially education. It aspires to achieve a better understanding of the consequences of the diglossic nature of Arabic and find solutions to existing problems.

The importance of this book resides in its nature as a collection of several field studies, conducted by the authors, with proper presentations of the methodologies, participants, practices and procedures, and discussions. Some of these studies are first in their fields, and all should be considered valuable stepping stones for future research. Based on their findings, many of the authors give recommendations either to improve existing systems or create new ones.

The book is appropriately divided into thematic sections. The length of some of the articles is proportional to their topic and the extent of the survey/study. The language used is easy-to-follow, and relevant tables, diagrams, and charts are provided where needed. However, table 1 in the introduction is misplaced; it should be next to table 2 since they both present the transcription conventions used throughout.


Rosenhouse, J., and Shehadi, K. (1986). Notes on diglossia problems in Arabic: The educational aspects. In I. Idalovichi and N. Ararat (Eds.), Philosophy, language, arts: Essays in honor of Alexander Brazel (pp. 251-272). Haifa: Technion- I.I.T.
Kariema El Touny holds an MA from Women’s College, Ain Shams University. Her interests include (but are not limited to) Syntax, Arabic Dialectology, Typology, and Theory Construction. She presented and published her research on Cairene Arabic syntax within the frameworks of the Minimalist Program and Optimality Theory.