Online Reading Skills Lessons in Arabic for High School Learners

National Foreign Language Center, University of Maryland

Welcome to Read Arabic!

The Read Arabic! Internet lessons have been developed at the National Foreign Language Center (NFLC) at the University of Maryland primarily to meet the needs of American high school students who want to learn to read Arabic and have already learned to recognize the alphabet and a few basic written words. Others will also find the materials useful, however, including people who wish to review and practice their reading ability in Arabic.

The Read Arabic! materials include several innovative activities that we hope you will find useful (and fun, too). Although the course developers have made every effort to ensure that everything works properly, it may be that you experience a technical problem as you work with the materials. In that event, please e-mail the NFLC at webmaster@nflc.org. We will be glad to help you.

Objectives of This Guide

The purpose of this guide is to provide information about the Read Arabic! lessons, including how to get started, how to take full advantage of the different learning resources, and how to achieve maximum results. Please read the entire guide.

Some topics covered in the guide include the lesson objectives, lesson content, text levels, and what you will need to do in order to benefit. There are study suggestions to help you get the most out of the materials; there is also a short discussion of what you can reasonably expect to be able to do in reading Arabic when you have completed the lessons. We hope that the guide will answer many of the questions you may have.

About the Arabic Language

Arabic is the national language of 25 countries extending along the southern and eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the rims of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. (See map below.) There are also speakers of Arabic in such countries as France, Iran, Israel, Tajikistan, and the United States. A variety of Arabic is spoken as a native language by over 240 million speakers. Many millions of others read the Classical Arabic of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, as part of their religious devotions.

There are several varieties of spoken Arabic, referred to as Colloquial Arabic, dialects or vernaculars. These dialects are about as different from one another as the Romance languages of Western Europe are from each other. The Colloquial Arabic dialects are typically grouped into five major dialect areas, including the Maghreb area of northwestern Africa and Libya, Egyptian Arabic (including Sudan), Levantine Arabic (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian Arabic of Israel and the West Bank), Iraqi Arabic, and Gulf Arabic (the Arabian Peninsula). Somali Arabic is sometimes included in Gulf Arabic or may be treated as a distinct dialect area. Spoken varieties of Arabic differ more and more significantly from each other the further away one goes from one’s place of origin. Thus, Iraqi and Moroccan Arabic are not always mutually intelligible.

Arabic has been spoken for at least two thousand years. The language called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is based on Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, when Arabic was first written. MSA is primarily a written language, used in documents and as the language of education and the mass media; however, spoken MSA can also serve as a medium of spoken interaction among speakers of different varieties of Arabic. An excellent summary of information about MSA and major dialect areas can be found at the “About World Languages” Web site at http://www.aboutworldlanguages.com/ArabicOverview/

Although some of the grammatical forms, vocabulary, and the sounds of the vowels and consonants vary quite a bit from one Arabic dialect to another, all of the dialects have several important features in common. They all make use of the same writing system, which has been in use in Arab lands for almost 1,500 years. Thus, it is possible for two speakers of different Arabic dialects who cannot understand each other’s speech to, nonetheless, understand each other’s written messages.

The Arabic Writing System

Arabic is written from right to left – the opposite of English and other European languages. As in English, however, Arabic words are separated from each other by spaces.

To read Arabic, you must get used to the fact that in the Arabic script, the short vowels a, i or u (as opposed to the long vowels aa, uu and ii), are not shown in the script. Thus, for example, you will need to get used to the fact that the word ‘bank’ (which Arabic has borrowed from English), is written with Arabic letters representing b-n-k, without any vowel letters.

There are no capital letters in Arabic. Nor are there different letter shapes for printing. In Arabic, there is no equivalent of the English text you are now reading, where all the letters have separate forms, with spaces between them. Instead, letters are connected to the adjacent letters by short strokes, as in English cursive handwriting.

However, unlike cursive writing based on the Latin alphabet, most letters change form depending on whether they appear at the beginning, middle or end of a word, or on their own. A few letters do not join to the following letter (on the left), but all Arabic letters are joined to the preceding one.

The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, which systematically represent 27 consonant sounds. The letters are represented in the chart below, which shows the sound that they represent and their appearance at the beginnings of words, between letters, at the ends of words and when standing in isolation. The letters in the chart are in the “Naskh” font, the one most commonly used in printed material and publications.

Note that the letter alif has no sound of its own, and is used only to express the long vowel ‘aa’ and as a support for the so-called hamza, which is written above the letter. The hamza is not regarded by the Arabs as a letter of the alphabet, but as a supplementary sign. Its official pronunciation is a glottal stop (a catch in the throat, like the middle sound of the English expression uh-uh, meaning ‘no’). It is frequently omitted in speech, but it is common in written Arabic. Here the hamza is shown on the letter alif:

The Letters of the Arabic Alphabet
Phonetic RepresentationSound of the letterInitialMedialFinalIsolated
aaaاـاـاا
bbبــبــبب
ttتــتــتت
thth (thin)ثــثــثث
jjجــجــجج
Hraspy h(not in English)حــحــحح
khGerman chخــخــخخ
ddدـدـدد
dhth (then)ذـذـذذ
rrرـرـرر
zzزـزـزز
ss ســســسس
Semphatic s(not in English)ـصـصـصـص
Demphatic d(not in English)ـضـصـضـض
Temphatic t(not in English)ـطـطـطـط
DHemphatic th(not in English)ـظـظـظـظ
ʿpharyngeal stop(not in English)ـعـعـعـع
ghvoiced kh(not in English)ـغـغـغـغ
ffـفـفـفـف
qpharyngeal k(not in English)ـقـقـقـق
kkـكـكـكـك
llـلـلـلـل
mmـمـمـمـم
nnـنـنـنـن
hhـهـهـهـه
wwـوـووو
yyـيـيـيـي

Goals of Read Arabic!

The goals of Read Arabic! are to provide American high school students and others who are inexperienced readers of Arabic with opportunities to read short examples of Arabic writing about a variety of interesting topics. Research shows that the best way to learn to read in any language is to do a lot of reading. The stories, articles, and lists in Read Arabic!, together with the several different learning activities, provide fun opportunities to practice reading. At the same time, they introduce students to information about Arabic culture, history, and society.

Learners need to have basic familiarity with the Arabic writing system in order to benefit from Read Arabic! Several Web sites provide introductions to the writing system, including this one: http://www.aboutworldlanguages.com/ArabicOverview/#writ.

There are three levels of reading difficulty for the Read Arabic! materials:

  • Novice materials consist of very short readings with frequently used vocabulary. These beginning-level readings are simple lists, basic everyday dialogues, or very short sentences. Some Novice-level lessons are marked as *Basic Language; these provide practice reading the kind of language studied in beginning textbooks of Arabic.

  • Intermediate materials are relatively short articles or descriptions, often taken from a newspaper or book of straightforward readings. To read these comfortably, learners should have completed at least one or two years of Arabic language study, or they should be very familiar with the topic of the particular lesson.

  • Cultural materials are examples of excerpts from Arabic literature and cultural sayings and proverbs. To understand these completely, a learner needs to be a very strong reader of the language, but the learning activities in these lessons are designed so that even beginning readers are able to appreciate them.

Getting Started with Read Arabic!

Access to the course materials is provided directly from the Web site at http://readArabic.nflc.org/?page=home. On the Web site, you will find the following clickable list of Read Arabic! materials:

Novice Materials designed for beginning readers, after the writing system has been learned.
Intermediate Materials intended for learners who are already able to read relatively simple connected sentences in Arabic.
Cultural Materials at a more advanced linguistic and cultural level that provide insight into Arabic traditions and values.

Begin by selecting the level of the reading passage that you wish to work on.

The topics in each level are listed alphabetically and not in any recommended order. However, in the Novice level, the lessons marked as *Basic Language are less difficult than the others. You’ll also notice that some lessons are alphabetized together by a shared theme or topic, so that you can practice reading in a common topic area. You should look for a topic that interests you or that you know something about and try it. If it seems too hard for you now, then do another lesson first and come back to it later. For the most part, the lessons at a given level can be read in any sequence you prefer.

The next section describes what you’ll find in a lesson.

What’s in a Read Arabic! Lesson?

The opening page of any lesson in Read Arabic! will look like this one:


On this Overview page, you can find information about the passage, including its approximate level, the focus and content of the lesson, and the source for the passage.

Across the top of the screen, you can see a clickable link for the Source, which is simply the text itself. You can see that in the next screen shot.

Also shown across the top are links to four to six learning activities based on the reading. Here is an example of one learning activity from a different lesson.

In these activities, you can change the instructions to English just by clicking in the orange box. The light bulbs will provide hints if you click on them. You will also get additional feedback and hints each time you select an answer in an activity. Then, if you don’t know the answer after two tries, the program will provide it for you.

Notice, too, at the top of the Activity page, underneath the white LangNet box, you may see the words Learn More. If you click on these words when you see them, you will find interesting additional information about the language or culture in relation to that activity. They are like a kind of “bonus.” When you see a Learn More link, we recommend that you look at it before you do the activity itself.

At the bottom of every page in the lesson, you will find the following clickable words along the window’s frame:

Tutorial. The Tutorial provides information about how to use all of the different kinds of LangNet lessons and activities. Read Arabic! uses the LangNet software.

Hide Instructions: If you are already familiar with all of the types of activities, you can click this and you won’t see the instructions anymore. This gives you a little more space to work in.

Text Plus. You will almost certainly the Text Plus link a lot. It takes you to screens where you can play a sound recording of the passage and where you can see a line-by-line translation of the passage into English. In some lessons, you will also find a .pdf file of extra material on the topic of the lesson.

The other clickable terms along the bottom of the screen are pretty much self-explanatory.

Notes. The Notes provide information about the culture and about language use in relation to the topic of the lesson. You should make it a point to click the Notes button in every lesson.

Glossary. The Glossary includes English explanations of four to twenty or more frequently used words or phrases that appear in the passage or in the learning activities, together with sound recordings of the entries. The Glossaries for Intermediate and Cultural levels of texts also include examples of how the word or phrase is used in context. The English Explanation always reflects the meaning used in the passage. Some words may have more than one meaning, but only the meaning used in the passage is shown in the Glossary. An example of a Glossary screen is shown below.

The primary entry of items in the Glossary is in the right-hand column and reflects first the word or phrase as it appears in the Source Text. In reading Modern Standard Arabic, it is also important that you learn to recognize the different grammatical forms of words, and the Item column will also show those. Entries for Nouns include the gender and the singular and plural forms. Entries for Adjectives show the masculine and feminine forms, while Verbs include the masculine and feminine forms of both present tense and past tense.

Dictionary. Clicking this provides you with Internet links to some useful online Arabic dictionaries. If you don’t know an expression in one of the passages (or anyplace else on the Internet), you can copy it and paste it into the dictionary to get the meaning in English.

Next. When this link appears, it takes you to additional pages of the particular learning activity. Make sure to do all the pages.

Strategies. The link to Strategies takes you to some suggestions based on research to help you become a more effective language learner. If you browse through this section, you are certain to find some hints that you will want to try.

Learning Suggestions

This may be your first experience in independent computer-assisted study of language and culture. We offer the following hints on what to expect, the nature of language, how to maintain motivation, and how to learn Arabic. These hints are based on what we and researchers have observed about language learning over the years—and on what people are just beginning to learn about successful distance learning.

Manage Your Expectations

A distance-learning course is not the same as a classroom course, and you cannot expect to make progress as quickly as if you were in a full-time daily course. However, if you combine systematic study of these materials with lots of other practice using the language to read (and re-read) these and other passages, listen to Arabic, and talk with your classmates and with Arabic speakers, we are certain that you will be pleased with your progress.

The Nature of Language

Language is a conventionalized system used for communication. Each language has its own system of sounds, word order, units of meaning, written symbols, and patterns of usage. Although every language has its own system unto itself, that system is, in many ways, arbitrary. Sometimes the only real answer that you can be given to the question: “Why do you write it that way?” is: “Because that's the way we write it!”

Hints on Motivation, Attitude, and Aptitude

Motivation and attitude are often the most important factors in success in learning a foreign language. The following are some of the ways of maintaining a positive helpful attitude and self-motivation:

  1. Set up a regular study schedule. One cannot cram in learning a language. Language learning is a real case where “slow and steady wins the race.” Do at least a little bit every day.

  2. Be patient with yourself. Language learning is gradual and mistakes are part of learning. You may make mistakes that you did not make earlier because you are focusing on new material and time is required to integrate and sort out this material in the mind.

  3. Do not compare yourself with others. Individuals learn at different rates and learning rates will differ within the same individual.

  4. Set realistic goals for yourself. Reward yourself for approximations as well as for complete correct answers. (“Well, at least I got the first part right.”).
Self-Evaluation

Evaluating your own progress is important. We recommend the following procedure: Set short-term goals first. Can you understand more completely today than two weeks ago? More than a month ago? What can you understand in spite of unfamiliar words? Ask yourself whether phrases and words are coming more easily—whether you are thinking in the language (thinking and dreaming in the language are good signs of your active involvement in the learning process). A good way to check how much progress you’ve made is to go back and read again a passage that you read a month ago. Does it come easier? Can you read it more fluently? Can you understand more?

Hints from “Ideal” Language Learners

From studying foreign language learners over many years, researchers have come up with some typical characteristics of good language learners. While you may already have some of these characteristics, see if consciously cultivating others helps your progress:

Successful language learners share the following characteristics:
  1. They are selective in what they retain from a passage. They focus on main ideas and content and function words. Most important, they focus on what they can understand instead of what they can’t.

  2. They tolerate ambiguity in a speech event. They are able to fill in the meaning of items that are not understood by using the context to make intelligent guesses.

  3. They have insights into their own preferred learning styles and are able to organize input into a coherent system for themselves.

  4. They are willing to take risks and appear “ridiculous” in order to test their own hypotheses about the language. A wonderful language learner, when asked the secret of his success, answered with a smile, “I have no sense of shame!”

  5. They focus primarily on communicating and doing things in the language (rather than on following grammar rules).

  6. They do not refer back to their native language system, but create a separate reference system for the target language. They are able to “think” in the language early in their study.

  7. They take advantage of every opportunity they have to use the language. For example, when people are talking together in the language, good language learners will be “impolite” and listen in. Try to speak Arabic to everyone that you know who speaks it as well as (or better than) you. And try to read something in every Arabic sign or note that you see.