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Review of  Unpacking the Core Teaching and Learning Practices of Arabic at a Major U.S. University: Critical Assessment, Innovation, and Collaboration

Reviewer: Hassan Makhad
Book Title: Unpacking the Core Teaching and Learning Practices of Arabic at a Major U.S. University: Critical Assessment, Innovation, and Collaboration
Book Author: Abderrahman Zouhir
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Issue Number: 27.3401

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The book, Unpacking the Core Teaching and Learning Practices of Arabic at a Major U.S. University: Critical Assessment, Innovation, and Collaboration, by Abderrahman ZOUHIR, addresses issues related to the teaching and learning of Arabic at the university level in America. It explores the influential components that affect Arabic instruction. It also sheds light on the learning challenges American students face while enrolled in Arabic programs. It additionally proposes a range of directions to ameliorate Arabic education and reduce the difficulties it confronts.

The book consists of five chapters, references and four appendices. Chapter One is the introduction. It contains two sub-sections. The first depicts the situation of Arabic in the USA. Increasing interest in Arabic is the outcome of three motives: (1) Arabic as the language of Islam, (2) US involvement in the Middle East and (3) growing concern about Arab culture. The author observes that despite the growth of interest in Arabic programs, learners face many difficulties studying the language. The complexities range from the writing system to derivations, phonology and syntax. Accordingly, he states that the project is inspired by three questions (p 5): (1) What are the foreign language history, literacy and practices of the participants? (2) What are the challenges that the participants face in learning Arabic? And (3) what factors influence the learning and teaching of Arabic? The second sub-section provides justifications for the importance of the book. It argues that the work is important for the teaching and learning of Arabic, as it investigates the challenges faced in these activities. It also explores the factors that affect these two endeavors.

Chapter Two is a review of literature on the subject of Arabic teaching and learning in the USA. It comprises six sections with additional subsections. The first deals with the historical development of Arabic teaching and learning in the USA. Many researchers claim that Arabic has been taught at Harvard University around 1654. Furthermore, the chapter shows that Arabic language programs are expanding in US universities post 9/11. It also deals with pedagogical disagreements regarding the existence of many Arabic forms: Standard Arabic, colloquial dialects and middle varieties of Arabic. The author proposes to consider student needs to determine which variety to learn as a foreign language. The second section is about the elements that affect learning Arabic. He cites various factors: socio-cultural, psycho-social, socio-cognitive, linguistic and pedagogical. All of these components motivate or discourage learners. For example, familiarity with Arab culture is more likely to result in successful learning of the language. Thus the integration of culture into Arabic courses is important. Similarly, familiar topics and a good methodology facilitate learning. The section on assessment illustrates that evaluations need to be restrained and standardized. They need to involve student’ viewpoints; otherwise they are not valuable. Standardization is required as the author mentions many examinations; yet testing standards may not reflect language abilities. Section Four requires teachers to have systematic and professional evaluation skills. These include portfolio and classroom assessments. He also suggests taking students’ task difficulties (anxiety, noise, and weaknesses) into account. Section Five recommends the use of technology (computers, videos, multimedia and related materials) as an innovative methodology of teaching languages. It offers a broad range of advantages. It improves learning, and it facilitates communication with other/native speakers. Thus it should be incorporated into classrooms, and teachers should be trained in this domain.

Chapter Three is about the methodology the author has used in his investigation. It contains three sections. The first is about data. The research, which was begun in 2006, employs six participants at the intermediate level and seeks to reveal the linguistic and social backgrounds of participants as well as their interests in studying Arabic. Moreover the author utilized three approaches in data collection: interviews (of students, former and current teachers), classroom observations and think-aloud considerations. The objective is to identify students’ proficiency level and determine the learning problems they face. Two raters scored the test, and the data is systematized on the basis of patterns and regularities that present learning motivations, objectives and drawbacks.

Chapter Four, which is the core of the book, treats the findings of the research. It deals with three basic topics: (1) Student experience in foreign language learning, (2) Difficulties in learning Arabic, and (3) Problems of teaching Arabic. All the participants studied different languages in high school, but not Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Moreover, they have varied drives for learning MSA. The majority of them assert that success on the job market is the main reason. Others want to know about Islam, Arab culture and / or communication with family. Candidates have confronted some inconsistencies with MSA which they did not find with other languages in high school. They hence consider MSA a difficult language. In addition, the syllabus is awkward, and the vocabulary is out of context. They use different strategies in their learning endeavors and they all ask for more practice. But they all experience linguistic transfer of their native language experience. They thus make various types of mistakes. They also face syntactic, morphological, phonological and orthographic challenges. Besides they confront the confusion between MSA and colloquial dialects. Moreover, teachers use different teaching methods and classes contain large numbers of students.

In Chapter Five, the author gives suggestions to overcome the difficulties made plain in teaching and learning MSA. He advises including MSA classes in high school curricula because students experience difficulties as a result of not being exposed to less commonly taught languages before university enrollment. This has to be coupled with exchange of expertise between teachers of Arabic and those of commonly taught languages. He recommends class activities that facilitate vocabulary retention. He promotes the use of adequate curricula and material with the consultation of teachers. He also advocates that education must be learner-centered, as its success depends on student involvement. He is in favor of exchange, study-abroad and summer programs to improve Arabic learning. He also recommends qualified, well-trained and experienced staff to do the teaching job. He finally defends the use of technology to facilitate learning of Arabic.


Indeed, this is an influential book. It provides readers with a general view of the issues related to teaching and learning Arabic in US universities. It has managed to present a full understanding of the topics under concern. The importance of the book lies in its usefulness for students, teachers and curriculum designers of Arabic. Its main strength is the exposing of the predicaments that Arabic students face, together with the offering of a comprehensive set of recommendations to solve the challenges that hinder successful Arabic programs at the university. Indeed, he has been successful in his objectives. However, I find the structure of the book somewhat confusing. Sections and subsections are left unnumbered. Readers need to frequently go back to the content table to situate themselves in the book. This complicates reading and comprehension.

The most important points he highlights in the work are those that prevent successful learning of Arabic. According to him, they are: (1) Absence of Arabic in high school, (2) Absence of qualified staff, and (3) Absence of adequate textbooks. The first factor, I believe, is necessary because of the nature of Arabic. The language has some specific properties that English, as well as other European languages, lack. For instance, Arabic is written from right to left in a cursive way. People are not familiar with several of the difficult sounds that it contains. Some characters have dissimilar forms in isolation, in the beginning, middle or end of a word. To make things tougher, the vowels are added as marks on consonants. Given these complexities (not counting others), earlier exposure to MSA in High school is central to gaining familiarity with the language. Fluency in MSA depends on exposure to the language, and adult learners need more time to achieve proficiency. The more contact with the language one has the easier the learning becomes. This is so because despite the apparent impenetrability mentioned above, MSA is a very consistent language in terms of spelling and pronunciation. The words are spelled the way they are articulated. Thus knowledge of orthography ensures production of correct forms, because patterns of spelling and pronunciation are established systematically. Multiple encounters with the language therefore guarantee letter-sound correspondence mastery.

The second issue is also valid as long as teachers are considered to be the second half in the process of education. The first half is the students. Even with qualified staff, learning can only happen if students are interested in lessons. Students get interested in a program when its content is suitable to their goals and desires. Yet qualified teachers facilitate learning provided that they conduct instruction and give rise to aspiration and competition. To make learning profitable in this regard, it must be interactive. A teacher’s job is to adapt programs to serve the learning objectives of students. (S)he familiarizes students with MSA’s structure and its correct use. Accordingly, the instructor has to encourage students to participate and be active more than (s)he does because the material is addressed to the learners. Moreover, in addition to their jobs of teaching and evaluating, educators need to show personal and humane characteristics toward learners. These sorts of serious attention have clear and positive impact on skill development, even more than teaching methods. Furthermore, I think that the major task of MSA instructors is to orient learning. They have to lead classes to discover language processes. They may raise conversation issues and guide knowledge improvements. They can probably expand oral and written abilities by encouraging debates and allowing students to get involved in formulating opinions so as to develop linguistic skills. All of these activities, as well as others, play significant roles in facilitating learning. They enrich linguistic experience and increase knowledge.

The third item is certainly the most important because I am confident that the quality of a text book determines the success or failure of an education. That is why textbooks are an issue of concern and research in second language teaching. A good schoolbook provides organized and fruitful instructions. I believe that benchmarking is the solution here. Actually, there are lots of successful Arabic programs in many Arab countries. The author is certainly familiar with the Iqraa textbook series, by Ahmed Boukmakh, that used to cover the entire primary school in Morocco. Such programs provide organized instruction through gradual knowledge increment. They are composed of appropriate subjects with accurate arrangements and defined objectives. Their content reflects the aim of familiarizing learners with MSA. Model series like these solve the majority of problems mentioned by the author. Having referred to the Iqraa example, does not disqualify other published MSA manuals, especially in the Arab gulf countries. These types of works could be adopted probably after revisions and reconsiderations. I am aware that more inquiries need to be done in this domain, as any kind of a teaching pattern and content relies heavily on the incorporated instruction material. Moreover, a good language program must be varied because not everybody learns the same way. I also think that no teaching methodology is conclusive. Each method has its own benefits and drawbacks. The justification is that students use different mental processing techniques in learning. Their views may thus be of great relevance in these matters.

Given these requirements, success may only happen if learners are more exposed to the target language in addition to their being motivated and taught by trained staff. Adding my voice to that of the author, I equally believe that instructors must be given more freedom to choose whichever program they consider adequate. They should also be open to benchmark other experiences and flexible in their teaching strategies thus making curricula more appealing.

In sum, the book is vastly instructive and informative. The topic is well-researched. The style is lucid and coherent. It provides readers with an appealing analytical approach and insightful examination method of the issues it treats. It is highly recommended to the community dealing with themes of applied linguistics and second language teaching, especially MSA students and educators.
Hassan Makhad is assistant professor at Cadi Ayyad University, the polydisciplinary faculty of Safi. Main interests are: syntax and morpho-syntax of afro-asiatic languages: Tashelhiyt, Moroccan Arabic and modern standard Arabic. other intersts are language policy, educational reform, L2 teaching and administrative reform.