I entered the field of Arabic Language education 15 years ago. Since then, I have been continually astounded by the significant value placed on students’ reading aloud in Arabic language classrooms. With Sheikh Mohammed’s launch of the Arab Reading Challenge last September and declaring 2016 as the Year of Reading, it seems a timely opportunity to examine this topic closely.
I would first encourage you to consider the following questions:
- How do people read in real life? Do they usually read aloud or silently?
- Is reading basically a comprehension skill or a pronunciation practice?
- Does reading aloud accurately mean that the reader has understood the text?
When learners read aloud they focus on pronouncing letters and words correctly and not on deciphering meaning. Consequently, it is difficult for them to pronounce well while at the same time understand what they are reading. Therefore, if students are asked to read aloud they should not be required to demonstrate their understanding. The task just does not match the purpose.
There is a widespread misunderstanding that reading aloud in Arabic with correct pronunciation automatically means that this person is a ‘good’ reader. Experience does not support this case. For example, a non-Arab Muslim can recite the Holy Quran perfectly with comprehending only very little.
Reading is essentially a thinking process that deals with sub skills such as gist understanding, skimming and scanning or as basic as matching words or sentences with pictures at lower levels. Being a good reader means being good at such comprehension skills. This leads to question the efficiency of reading aloud as a vehicle to enhance learners’ pronunciation.
Normally, young children know how to pronounce their mother tongue sounds properly before they go to school and learn the alphabet. They have acquired this by intensive listening and speaking at home. It can be concluded from this that learning correct pronunciation mainly takes place through listening and speaking activities that focus on word stress and intonation and not by mechanically reading aloud a written text.
Instead of investing a lot of energy and time on reading aloud, Arabic educators are advised to implement ways that actively engage students in reading for understanding. This can be achieved through incorporating effective reading strategies before, during and after exposure to the text. The pre-reading stage can include activities that trigger students’ motivation to read the text and establish connections between their lives, interests and what they are going to read. During the actual reading, students need to be taught to apply techniques on how to derive general and specific meanings, and form understandings and draw conclusions. The post-reading phase might provide learners with opportunities to think and respond beyond the text through links to other contexts and disciplines.
Reading aloud in real life can be helpful in very specific situations. It can be used to inform others (i.e. news reporter) or entertain them (i.e. telling a story or reciting a poem). In fact, these are performance practices and have very little to do with the actual purpose of reading.
Reading is first and foremost a comprehension skill and should be approached as a process for deriving meaning from the printed word and not a tool to encourage students to respond to the surface features of the language at the expense of the message.
By Mazen Sheikh