Strict regulations governing Arabic-language teaching to Arab pupils and a curriculum that is less than fresh and stimulating may be letting down a generation of children – but some schools are fighting back.
Schools detail problems with Arabic instruction
DUBAI // Arab parents fear their children are not properly learning their mother tongue because of outdated books and teaching methods that make it boring to study, and a report from a leading education authority seems to support their concerns.
Arab students learning Arabic must be taught from books approved by the Ministry of Education, even if they are studying at private schools that follow international curriculums.
Non-Arab students who take Arabic as an additional language, however, can be taught through different programmes - after the approval of the local education authority - so what and how they learn can differ a great deal from Arab pupils.
"I feel like they do not love the language, and [so] a lot of effort goes into teaching them Arabic at home," Umm Shadha al Gergawi, an Emirati mother of two, said of her children. "This is not the case with English, or the additional languages they take. The [Arabic] curriculum is very restricted and it is difficult for them to comprehend the topics."
Pupils learning Arabic as a first language made good progress in developing their reading and listening skills in the lower grades, but lagged in writing and speaking, according to the 2010 annual report by the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau (DSIB).
Their abilities declined in high school, where comprehension skills were limited. Most pupils could not display creative and extended writing capabilities.
Jameela al Muhairi, who heads the bureau, said educators needed to make Arabic interesting through more innovative teaching methods. "They have to be creative and learn from peers who teach other subjects."
The report also noted that pupils' use of standard Arabic required improvement, and oral skills needed to be developed. As a result, many Arab parents have resorted to sending their children for private classes after school.
Basel Shaban said he had hired a tutor to teach his children at home. "When we moved to Dubai from America, we thought there would be an environment where they could speak in Arabic," said Mr Shaban, who is originally from Saudi Arabia. "The schools only fulfil certain criteria, so then we need to come in to drill the basics, so that they can progress."
He said the school did not follow a differentiation approach, and pupils of varying abilities were learning the same thing. "When they joined, my kids were learning the alphabet, but after three years they come home not having learnt much beyond that.
"When kids find themselves doing the same thing and learning the same concepts, they shut down and lose interest."
Noura Rashid, the mother of a pupil at Mirdif Private School, agreed the curriculum was not what it could be, and said it was not sufficiently age-specific.
"For other languages, you have books on grammar, vocabulary and phonetics to develop speaking, reading, writing and listening skills, but in Arabic the textbooks are not that diverse," she said. "It is also very hard to get such books in the market and I think the ministry must create more resources."
Parental disappointment with the ministry-approved language curriculum had led to a growing interest in courses offered at the Dar el-ilm School of Languages because of the way Arabic was taught there, said Maha Jayyusi, the school's director of studies.
"We focus on communication and our method emphasises making learning easy, logical and fun," she said. "The script and language are taught through games and practical activities. In class, every student has to speak in Arabic."
Most parents preferred the added support because schools were restricted to teaching according to ministry requirements, which may not necessarily develop the necessary language skills, Ms Jayyusi said.
"The teachers are loading the children with information, which they won't even use in their daily life, so they end up memorising it just to pass an examination," she said.
The ministry is working to address the situation. Taaleem, a company that owns schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has been conducting professional development for teachers and investing in resources to raise the profile of the language. Dr Samia al Farra, the chief education officer at Taaleem, said the onus of teaching one's mother tongue did not fall on the school alone.
"The book is not the curriculum, it is just an instrument," she said. "The activities under the umbrella of the book are what constitutes the curriculum."
Dr al Farra said parents needed to be educated on their role in education. "When they bring home an Arabic newspaper or stories to read to their children, they are actually contributing to the whole picture of the curriculum."