Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 10 December 2019

Abu Dhabi university's new magnetic device helps children to write Arabic script

The technology guides the pupil's hand to make the difficult language easier to write

An engineering professor has built a hand-guiding device to make writing Arabic easier for children.

Academics at New York University Abu Dhabi are behind katib - Arabic for writer - an educational tool uses magnetic technology to guide the hand as characters are written.

The device is a stylus that uses touch and vibration, with sensors picking up motion and creating a visual object on screen.

They hope it will help children aged five and seven as they begin to learn the language. Test subjects likened the new stylus to a robot and enjoyed working with it.

Language teachers must often stand over each pupil and guide the child by holding their hand while they construct letters and words - particularly to teach a challenging language such as Arabic.

"Arabic is a calligraphic language and it can be more challenging than other languages," said Mohamed Eid, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, who devised the stylus.

It is an upgrade on a previous invention - a robotic hand - that sought to tackle the same challenges.

A robotic arm supported and guided a child’s hand movement in the past as part of the first generation of a similar technology intended to assist children to write Arabic. Victor Besa / The National Section
An earlier version of the device was a robotic arm that physically guides the hand. Victor Besa / The National

"The technology can transform a difficult experience into an enjoyable one," said Prof Eid.

"Our results suggest that children became more engaged and had better learning experiences with katib.”

Prof Eid was awarded Dh300,000 by the Department of Education and Knowledge, Abu Dhabi's private school regulator, in January 2018 to further his research.

The new version will assist children who are hearing or visually impaired and those with learning difficulties.

The device records hand movements of the pupil and provides teachers with feedback if extra classes are required.

"Children with learning difficulties could benefit and this technology can help them catch up with their peers,” he said.

An interactive stylus has been developed by a professor at New York University Abu Dhabi to  help teach young children to write Arabic letters and words. Victor Besa / The National 
The device can be used to learn a variety of languages. Victor Besa / The National

"The teacher can record any skill they want the child to learn while the pupil can download instructions and replay it.”

In the process of developing a prototype, Professor Eid aims to ensure the device is affordable for families and schools.

"We want to limit the price to Dh1,000 so families can use it at home where children can practice writing,” he said.

The professor plans to set up a company though which he can make katib available in the UAE and overseas.

He also hopes the device will encourage non-Arabic speaking adults and children to learn.

The US Foreign Service Institute, which trains State Department officials and others in language, ranks Arabic in its hardest category for English speakers to learn.

It estimates that 88 weeks or 2,200 hours are required to become proficient in reading and writing Arabic.

It classes Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean in the same category - regarded as "exceptionally difficult for native English speakers".

That compares to about 23-24 weeks or 575-600 hours for languages such as Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian.

Prof Eid and his team studied handwriting skills of a foundation stage class and another section comprising year 2 children at Cranleigh Abu Dhabi.

Tania Moonesinghe, head of pre-prep at Cranleigh, said it was a challenge for teachers to effectively monitor each child.

“We think there is great potential for haptic technology and tools to be incorporated into our normal teaching practice to improve hand control skills and correct letter formation in handwriting sessions,” she said.

Excessive use of touchscreen devices at home can impede writing skills.

Ms Moonesinghe said schools should incorporate drawing, painting and working with playdough into the early year curriculum to develop finger muscles and fine motor control.

"Although young children can swipe a screen, they do not have as much hand strength and agility to learn to write correctly when they start school,” she said.

Updated: September 22, 2019 07:07 PM

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