DUBAI // When an image of a boy on a swing appears on the computer screen during an Arabic class, Sophie Reid confidently walks up to the board and says: "Yakaf al walad alla al urjooha."
The eight-year-old pupil at the Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) is learning how to identify scenes from a circus after her teacher, Aliaa Baker, created a group game for the class. The phrase, which means "a boy standing on a swing", was an achievement for Sophie, who is taking Arabic as an additional language.
It would have not come so easily a year ago. Ms Baker, an Egyptian, was employed recently as part of an effort to revamp the school's Arabic language instruction, which was found to be unsatisfactory by education authorities.
"We interviewed more than 60 teachers but hired only four we thought could bring a spark to the lessons," said Tonya Berrington, the JESS Arabic coordinator.
"What we found was that the kids weren't particularly interested in the language and we are trying to change that attitude."
In the first round of inspections by the Dubai School Inspection Bureau (DSIB) in 2008, the school achieved an Outstanding grade, which was reduced last year because of low standards in teaching of the Arabic language.
The school did not offer a sufficiently challenging programme, which restricted pupil attainment and progress in the language, according to the 2010 DSIB report. The curriculum was not meeting the needs of first-language Arabic speakers either, the report stated.
The findings were a wake-up call for the JESS management, which decided to set up an Arabic department and recruit a new team of teachers. Wael Mohammed, who heads the department, said pupils are now divided into classes depending on their ability.
"The programme is designed according to the pace of the child and we provide extra support to those who find it more difficult than the others," he said. "The topics are not just classroom chapters as we relate them to the outside world so that they can speak and understand things when they go to the market, for example."
The changes are being noticed by parents. Maryanne Grogan, the mother of two children at JESS, has seen an improvement in their language skills.
"The other day when Iona came home she picked up a fruit and said 'Ma, this is a peach' in Arabic," she said. "I don't know what a peach is in Arabic but I was quite happy because she is trying harder now."