Strategies for Reading in Arabic
Benefits: Why focus on reading?
It is extremely exciting and rewarding to experience breakthroughs reading texts that once seemed impossible during earlier stages of your learning. But, how do you actively improve your reading skills in Arabic, especially as a self-instructed learner? how do you go from struggling to read newspaper articles without a dictionary to engaging advanced literary texts? This resource is designed to provide some insight into both general and Arabic-specific strategies to become a better reader in Arabic. This resource might be more useful to a language learner who has covered, or is at least familiar, with grammar fundamentals and have built a strong foundation in vocabulary (for example, language learners at ACTFL levels of intermediate and above). However, some of these tips could also be useful to beginners at the advanced level. The strategies outlined here aim to facilitate and improve reading comprehension, in addition to encourage self-instructed learners to translate what is learned through reading into related skills such as speaking, listening, and writing.
General strategies and approaches:
- Balancing between focused reading and relaxed modes of reading: If you tend to depend significantly on a dictionary to get through a text, challenge yourself to dedicate some time reading without one in a relaxed manner. This might mean selecting texts that are at a lower level than you are aspiring to read. Relaxed modes of reading are important in building comfort and confidence reading and developing your own strategies comprehending passages where you might not know every word.
- Re-read texts: If you are working with a text that is extremely difficult to engage without a dictionary, try reading through the first time to get some main ideas about the passage. Re-read the text with a dictionary to refine your understanding. Then, return to the text another time after a close reading! Re-reading texts (after you have read and understood the passage) allows you to notice other things (in addition to new vocabulary) such as sentence structure and style and eventually incorporate them into your own writing and speaking.
- Summarize each paragraph in 3-4 words: When doing a first reading without a dictionary, try to summarize the meaning of each paragraph in a few words along the margins. When you return to re-read the text, this jogs your memory. Additionally, it helps you to keep track of what you understood and what you may have missed during the first reading.
- Read different kinds of texts: Be sure to switch up the types of texts you are reading. If you tend to read newspaper articles, try out an opinion piece or movie review. If your reading tends to focus on short stories, experiment with a poem or even a novel.
- Overall reading strategy: 1) Begin by getting the overall idea of the text; 2) Then begin focusing on details such as vocabulary and unfamiliar grammar; 3) Compile patterns and vocabulary that you learn in the process; 4) actively incorporate them into your writing and discuss them with your mentor
Specific Arabic language advice
- Reading out loud: While this is critical for any language, reading out loud in Arabic can be very useful to work on pronunciation, grammar, and clarify your understanding of the text. Try reading out loud texts that might have a version of someone reading it that you can compare your reading to and/or read a paragraph to your mentor.
- Roots: Return to the root of a word when you don’t immediately understand it. You might know the meaning of the root or have encountered it in a different form.
- Forms: Return to the forms (of verbs, nouns) that you learned. If you don’t know the meaning of the word, but are familiar with the root try to guess what the meaning of the word is based on its form.
- Use different types of dictionaries: Do not depend solely on aratools (online dictionary English-Arabic), Hans Wehr (Arabic-English), or Arabic-Arabic dictionaries. Using multiple kinds of dictionaries gives different insight into the meaning of a word and its use. Challenge yourself to use an Arabic-Arabic dictionary.
- Push yourself to read faster: Set a timer; try to read a certain number of pages or words per x period of time. This does not mean don’t read slowly, but it is critical to practice faster modes of reading that activate different skills. Reading faster can help with building confidence in listening and reading when you don’t have the time or ability to press pause or grab a dictionary.
Technological tools to improve your reading experience
Since The Whole World Guide to Language Learning was published in 1989, new technologies—like the internet—have drastically increased the number of strategies available to students for learning a new language. Below are a few resources that will be especially for learner of MSA as well as other less commonly taught African languages:
- Readlang is a free chrome extension that allows you to translate any word or phrase in a text simply by clicking on it. For a $5.00 monthly premium subscription, Readlang will also read aloud words that you click on, which is especially useful for languages which use abjad scripts, like Arabic, or for languages in which words are not spelled phonetically. Readlang keeps track of words that you click on and creates flashcards for you to review these words, or you can export lists of these words to your favorite vocabulary learning tool. Readlang has a library of Arabic language materials, but you can upload your own materials. At this time, Readlang supports two less commonly taught African languages: Arabic and Swahili.
- LingQ is like Readlang, but more expensive and more complicated. Like Readlang, it translates, pronounces, and makes flashcards for words you don’t know. But it has many more features. For one, the vocabulary review features are more robust and varied, but if you already use spaced repetition software like Anki, these features will not be useful. Additionally, when you look at a text, LingQ automatically shows you which words you are likely to know and which you are unlikely to know. Since LingQ tracks all the words that you do and do not know, it has the ability to recommend readings for you that have enough new words to push your learning, but not so many that you will become frustrated and have a difficult time reading. At this time, Readlang supports Arabic, but no other less commonly taught African languages.
- Interlinear Books is an online resource that translates Arabic word by word (generally preserving Arabic sentence structure). Lines alternate between Arabic and English, with the English appearing below the Arabic. So the reader can read through the Arabic, but look down if they are unfamiliar with a word or phrase. Currently they only have one book available, but that could change soon. An Arabic language audiobook is also included (read by a real native speaker), which is great for students that want to read along as they listen.
- eBooks and eReaders, like Kindle, are a great resource for learning a language through reading. eReaders generally allow you to see a definition of a word just by clicking on it. So instead of having to look words up online or in a print dictionary, you see definitions instantly. Many students appreciate this feature, since they can maintain more “flow” while reading, instead of being frequently interrupted by looking up unknown words. Even if you don’t have an eReader, you can read eBooks on your desktop computer, which allows the same functions.
There are many general resources available that elaborate on general reading strategies in language learning. Here are some of the resources this page draws on that discuss both general and Arabic-specific strategies. Feel free to share additional resources that you think other learners would find useful.