Queen Rania Foundation

Fostering Language Development in the Early Years

KEY POINTS & RECOMMENDATIONS

The sixth in a series of conversations on Advancing Arabic Language Teaching and Learning will explore ways to prepare children for learning in their early years, from birth to preschool and the early grades of school. The conversation will explore effective approaches to facilitate language development in the early years. This includes increased exposure to Arabic, particularly MSA, as well as bridging children’s knowledge of colloquial Arabic and learning of MSA using common features and vocabulary between MSA and colloquial forms of Arabic.

This note summarizes and extends the key points and recommendations on these topics from the World Bank’s report on Advancing Arabic Language Teaching Learning: A Path to Reducing Learning Poverty in MENA.

Key points

  1. Two sets of skills are fundamental for literacy, regardless of language: (a) the ability to comprehend oral language, and (b) the ability to recognize printed words. The importance of these two sets of skills indicates why a language-rich environment is needed from the earliest moments of childhood—reading cannot be disconnected from listening and speaking (and writing cannot be disconnected from all three).
  2. Evidence confirms the importance of vocabulary and oral comprehension prior to learning to read. Children can transition easier from their mother tongue dialect to MSA if exposed to MSA early on via activities like reading children’s literature, naming things in MSA, and watching MSA cartoons for a limited amount of time.
  3. The more words a child knows, the greater the links between printed and spoken words they will be able to make when learning to read. The relationship works both ways: the more children read, the more their vocabulary increases; and the greater their vocabulary, the more they are able to read and comprehend. Research has shown that early literacy experiences, especially at home, have positive effects on children’s language and literacy development, and school readiness in general.
  4. Some children have very little exposure to MSA, in early years before starting school. Others may hear it through cartoons dubbed in MSA or being read to.
  5. Parents in Arabic-speaking countries are less likely to have children’s books in their home and are less likely to read to their children (as indicated in PIRLS 2016). For example, in Morocco and Saudi Arabia most children (over 60 percent) are in homes with very few children’s books (less than 10). By comparison, the average across PIRLS 2016 participating countries was 19 percent. Thus, it is of great concern that there is a lack of a culture of reading to children in the MENA region. For example, home literacy has explained 20 percent of the variance in Arab children’s literacy development.

Recommendations

  1. Exposure to useful day-to-day life and academic vocabulary, especially in MSA, in the early years should be increased; for example, through reading to young children and investing in children’s television programs in MSA.
  2. Throughout the early year and grades of school, build a bridge between children’s knowledge of colloquial Arabic and learning of MSA using common features and vocabulary between MSA and colloquial forms of Arabic. Explicitly teach links between colloquial and formal Arabic using targeted materials, recognizing the extent of overlap, and using this to support children’s learning. This includes:
    - Starting with simple words that are common to MSA and the child’s dialect
    - Highlighting common patterns
    - Teaching phonemes that exist in MSA, explicitly.
  3. Expand early exposure to MSA during preschool, particularly:
    - Expand children’s early exposure to MSA, especially vocabulary, in engaging ways
    - Encourage parents to increase their children’s exposure to MSA, including reading to their children in MSA from an early age.
  4. In school, explicitly teach MSA sounds, vocabulary, and syntax that are not found in local dialects.
  5. Inside and outside of school, increase children’s access to engaging children’s literature, cartoons, and children’s television programs in MSA.