What beginning to learn Arabic has taught me about teaching ‘English as a Second Language’


Our school is wonderfully tight-knit which comes from the small through-school qualities and has fostered more primary/secondary collaborations than I had experienced in the UK. As an English teacher, my day-to-day teaching was greatly affected by the change in cohort comparably: my previous UK schools were in deprived areas with predominantly white working-class families with little to no ESL/EAL students. Now, the language needs of my students differ far more and the routes taken to deliver an English curriculum has been a work in progress. Our school is committed to developing our teaching in a second language for all subjects and I am lucky to work with some very driven and compassionate teachers, support staff and leadership. During my PGCE and NQT training ESL did not feature either as a priority or even as a bolt-on seminar of strategies, equally since moving I haven’t found specific ESL teacher training. Perhaps this is a result of our focus on the British curriculum but is something we are looking to develop in the coming academic year with a new assistant principal appointed to focus on CPD.  This will support a great deal of ‘in-house’ departmental meetings where we have been sharing our experiences and strategies since I have become HOD. It has very much been a grass roots learning experience and one that, whilst frustrating at times, I have valued.


My learning

My understanding of teaching a second language began in earnest when I began to learn one. (I am bilingual and English is already my second language but it happened so young in my life, I was never conscious of the process) I have been fascinated by the rich culture here in the UAE and wanted to learn more of the language. Unusually, of almost everybody you meet English is the common language in a kaleidoscope of cultures therefore opportunities to learn Arabic can be limited. You could go your whole ‘expat’ life without ever needing to learn. I for one want to learn and enlisted the help of my gracious yr11 form group and some very supportive Arabic teachers.


Start small – don’t overload

Logically, I started with my letters. However, even learning a dozen variants in one sitting with an Arabic teacher left my brain fried. My yr11 students who are always in school early relished the opportunity to turn the tables on me and are very supportive. However, in their excitement they tried to give me too much at first or went off in tangents about definitions with one another in Arabic. Whilst their enthusiasm and desire to help was undoubtable; it gave me a unique insight into the experience of a brand new ESL/EAL student that is given too much at once, finding themselves adrift in a foreign language. I felt the sense of achievement of correctly answering what I had learnt in previous sessions and took a lot of pride in my letter formation but floundered when asked for a letter or word I hadn’t explicitly been taught. Sometimes people assumed I knew certain letters or phrases therefore I have learnt not to take for granted the prior knowledge of ESL/EAL students and the value of low stakes quizzing which others have blogged about before here and here. Seeing what they can do for confidence from the other side of the desk was quite powerful.


Repetition & correction

Here is where my yr11 students really came into their own and I felt I made the most progress as well. When I mark, I will correctly write their spellings for them to duplicate x3. Some may argue that they must retrieve the correct spelling themselves or even find the error in the sentence or line; I would argue with students still in the formative stages of understanding the language this can be a huge and rather unnecessary barrier. One student in particular, Mohammad, checked my simple vocabulary and seemed to get real pleasure out of ensuring that I rewrote each word out correctly x3 as I ask him to do in class. Seeing this from the other side, it was neither tedious nor a waste of time as with each reiteration of the words my Arabic handwriting became more confident and I sometimes said the rules out loud that I has got wrong previously: the ‘d’ and the ‘r’ do not connect when within a word. The benefit was two-fold: my students enjoy exacting what they see as a light-hearted retribution whilst I can see real progress very quickly. It gave me a sense of achievement even though my language ability is incredibly limited.


Phonetics and definitions

Arabic is a phonetic language and much discussion has been had times about the spelling of words which has often left me with no clearer idea about the correct spelling or pronunciation. Two very supportive Arabic teachers have been explicit in their teaching of pronunciation and helping me write the English phonetic equivalent to support my ‘classwork’. What this has taught me is the subtleties in language that we take for granted as fluent speakers creates a minefield for ESL/EAL students. In our department we are driving for a knowledge-rich vocabulary curriculum, exposing students to high quality texts with the tools to access them. Alex Quigley @HuntingEnglish has written extensively about the need to address this vocabulary gap and given strategies for which to do so, guiding the way in our approach to bolstering student vocabulary knowledge. Vocabulary Ninja has also popped up with this Laboratory for exploring words in more detail. This is something I really believe in and making a “case study” of vocabulary is expounded by Dough Lemov @Doug_Lemov in his book ‘Reading Reconsidered’. To take this a step further in an ESL/EAL setting I aim to make our current vocabulary model more embedded and include phonetic spelling for pronunciation on the board as well as the dual coding of images.

We currently also have something called Magpie Books where all ambitious vocabulary is ‘magpied’ from texts we have read; descriptive writing we have co-created as a class or that we have explicitly taught as part of the academic language of our module. These travel with students as they move up through the school so even as their class teachers change and their class books from the previous year go home, their vocabulary banks remain intact and are continuously added to. Our ‘Word of the Week’ now offers a clear definition with the word used in multiple contexts all explicitly linked to something we have covered in that year as a frame of reference. Building on the repetition and correction I mentioned earlier, the ‘Words of the Week’ are specifically chosen to complement the learning for that week and are used overtly used in class. Year on year, I hope to take this further and offer phonetic spellings for pronunciation for each word and support this with more verbal modelling.


Real life experience

Having just returned from a spring break in Jordan, I had a real-life opportunity to test my rudimentary Arabic with people who would not immediately revert to English. It did so much for my confidence (in the few phrases that I do know) and the true sign that I was believable was that on many occasions people carried on talking to me long after my Arabic had dried up. The people of Jordan were overwhelmingly welcoming and in any country people appreciate your efforts to assimilate to their culture. This real life practice – perhaps beyond that of my own students – gave me the opportunity to try out more vocabulary than I may have done. In examining the English as a Second Language GCSE, the listening paper always focuses on real life experiences such as visiting a bank or listening to a conversation between two colleagues. In our focused support sessions of ESL/EAL students we are developing a curriculum that does not have the abstract qualities of Literature but rather focuses on building conversations like tennis games.


Retrieval practice

From returning to the role of student, nothing is more pertinent than consolidation and retrieval. The subtle nuances of pronunciation and where the emphasis is placed in a word is lost to me after a few short weeks if I do not practice. This same principal applies to everything but took the fresh perspective and learning a language to solidify this for me. I love getting quizzed by my students and colleagues as it is an opportunity to show off how much I have retained. With this in mind, and especially with exam revision ramping up, we are embedded more and more retrieval practice into our revision sessions and tutor time activities which include 5-a-day revision (find my 12 week one here); and retrieval challenge grids inspired by Kate Jones @87History and her blog about it here. These challenge grids have the flexibility to be all verbal competition or part of written classwork and the differentiated questions allows tiered questioning across a range of topics that have already been covered.


My Arabic is still pretty weak but I’m keen and will continue to learn. Seeing language acquisition through their eyes has also helped me develop my practice and understand better what second language learners go through.

3 thoughts on “What beginning to learn Arabic has taught me about teaching ‘English as a Second Language’

  1. I remember trying to learn Arabic (a regional dialect) while teaching ESL. I learned the alphabet, worked on my handwriting, and then realized how different the textbooks are from the way people speak. In the end, learning the alphabet was one of the best things I ever did as it helped me transliterate words for ELLs and it helped me read and pronounce words in a variety of languages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. Focusing on alphabet retrieval as I’m pretty confident with this now. No textbooks at the moment; I’m reading through phonics and it is working. A very enlightening study for sure!


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