Does Cognitive Science Hold the Solution for the Arab Education Lag?

It’s a well-known problem that Arab students are falling behind the rest of the world, but a new approach might finally offer a way to reverse this trend—and it’s coming from cognitive neuroscience. It seems that young students may read Arabic too slowly for their “working memory” to hold the information long enough to think about it, and this can hinder early learning. Research in new learning methods could be the answer.

In the Arab world, education has been hard to get. Arab countries have invested extensively in moves toward universal access to education, but they get disappointing results. Poor and rural populations are at greater risk, but low performance seems to affect all countries. It’s a mystery that begs for a solution.

In comparison to students of many other countries, Arab students on average seem to fall behind early on. Oral reading tests promoted by the United States Agency for International Development in Jordan, Yemen, Morocco and Egypt have shown a widespread inability to understand written text, even after three to four years of schooling. International comparison tests offer more worrying comparisons with students of similar grades and ages across the world. Several countries have participated in assessments by study centers such as TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science), PIRLS (Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). The fourth graders of all participating Arab countries score near the bottom of the relevant distributions in reading, math, and science in grade four. In the “reading to learn” competency, most of the sampled Arab students are classified as performing at a low level against international benchmarks.

Blogs and articles on the subject of this education lag refer to economic incentives, sociological factors, the boredom of traditional schools, and the presumed oral culture of the Arab world. But while these issues may be important, they are peripheral. Students fall behind early due to factors that are more closely linked to human biology, and particularly to the “low-level” perceptual and memory operations that enable humans to process information. Here’s why this is of particular relevance to Arab students.

Reading and the Challenges to Human Memory

As educated people, we make no apparent mental effort when we pick up a newspaper. We do not really perceive letters; we instantly recognize the script and the language, and then we spend most of our conscious time thinking about what we are reading. But in reality, we spend the first few milliseconds in a parallel universe. This is when we use our procedural memory, which contains knowledge of how letters look, how sounds fit with them, what the language says, and which combinations are possible and impossible. We do not even notice these—procedural memory is unconscious and rapid, and we are not set up to monitor its neurological effects.

The recall of reading rules and language has to be instant. The information must fit within our “working memory”—the type of memory that holds our present thoughts—and its space-time is very limited. According to some estimates, it may only hold about seven items for about 12 seconds. Script must be interpreted correctly within this timeframe, or the working memory gets wiped out. We lose our train of thought, and we cannot proceed.

It is easiest to learn reading in languages that consistently represent sounds with letters. We are also more efficient at retaining the memory of simple shapes frequently found in nature, as visual circuits have been set up to recognize these through evolution. With practice, the brain connects sequences of symbols into longer patterns. Initially, learners read letter by letter, but after several hours of practice a part of the brain gets activated that recognizes words as if they were faces. This seems to happen at around 45–60 words per minute. After this we read effortlessly and automatically, and we can process large volumes of text.

Dots, Curls, and Grammar Forms Shape the Knowledge of Arab Students

While English spelling takes around three years to master, the voweled Arabic script adequately represents most sounds and can be learned quickly, within 100 days of schooling. But there are a number of complications in Arabic script linked to its evolution from an older Semitic script. At an age where paper or writing surfaces were rare, space was at a premium and letters were necessarily dense. Ancient stone inscriptions suggest that some letters were hard to distinguish, so over time they acquired dots. To create separation between words, new initial and final letter forms also developed.

This was not problematic earlier in history, as readers needed to process only a few lines at a time: inscriptions, letters, or religious texts. They could read slowly and through repeated readings could make sense of the messages. By contrast, we now process huge numbers of pages every day, so new information must flow efficiently into our working memory and get interpreted. Now everyone in a country has to learn to read, so scripts must be optimized for the visual system. This creates problems for countries that use scripts with visual complexities, such as south Indian or east Asian scripts, like Khmer.

Research suggests that the set of visual features accumulated over time in Arabic script strains the brain’s character detection system. Similar characters with disconnected lines and dots slow readers down. And while the speed difference is imperceptible for proficient readers, it does affect young students. The effect is more pronounced when there are dots above and below letters, such as ينبغي  (should), or a running series of similar letters, such as ينتشر and ينتثر (publish and scatter). Short vowel signs are useful for identification, but they involve an overlay of disconnected lines that slow down visual processing. It is faster to process un-voweled text, but students first have to learn to predict the short vowels. This requires speed, automatic responses, and instant word identification.

The visual factors of letters are only the beginning of the problem. The other element is language. No one speaks standard Arabic at home; students need to learn the relevant grammar, vocabulary and syntax for their schoolwork. Research suggests that students treat Arabic as a foreign language, and the difficulty of mastering it depends very much on the linguistic distance of their mother tongue from standard Arabic.

In principle, first graders should be able to conjugate verbs in the 10 forms in the present and past tense, in the masculine, feminine, and dual numbers. Children are very good at pattern recognition, so systematic instruction in this task could be feasible. But governments and specialists are unsure how to teach basic reading and writing.

“Modern” methodologists advocate natural language learning through authentic texts, so Arab countries often teach reading through whole words and teach language through real-world events. This might work for the English language because it has relatively little grammar; it can even work in middle-class Arabic schools, but the multitude of Arabic patterns means that students need a great deal of exposure to form rules on those patterns and insert them into implicit memory. However, students from poorer families with limited education and ability to help may lag behind. On the other hand, “traditional” grammar instruction is also inefficient. Students have to start by learning a large amount of grammatical terminology (e.g. a definition of a term such as idafa, which shows possession) that may detract from language use and is widely disliked.

As a result, few students enjoy reading Arabic or willingly engage in it. The cognitive load and effort create a vicious circle—it is difficult and therefore not enjoyable, so children resist practicing reading, which means it continues to be difficult. As a result, the necessary visual and linguistic processing speeds that are needed to comprehend volumes of text may lag behind for years. To be integrated into long-term memory networks, information must first get through working memory. And its capacity is unforgiving. It seems that many students learn little information from written text.

Overall, Arab readers must instantly and correctly identify individual letters and words, read entire sentences, make sense of them, and make some decisions. All this must take place within perhaps 12 seconds of the working memory span. This means that Arab students have to learn a great deal of preliminary material before they can make sense of texts. For many people these complexities push the limits of human processing capacity.

By contrast, Romanian or Armenian children need only to learn one set of letters that have a single shape and are strung consistently to produce words. Students in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, where the Arabic script is used, face the visual challenges of Arab students but decode words in their familiar languages. This is perhaps one reason why Iran scores slightly above the Arab countries in TIMSS and PIRLS assessments.

Potential solutions

Many parents in Arab countries work hard with their children and overcome these obstacles. But what happens to the bottom 50 percent? In rural Morocco there are many fifth graders who are barely starting to read meaningful sentences or make sense of text.

Use of cognitive science opens unexplored possibilities. In principle it may be possible to improve Arab students’ reading speed and comprehension, so that it can come to match that of students of other languages who face fewer visual and linguistic challenges before they can read. Optimizing printing fonts for speed, removing certain vowel signs (harakat) but not others, or learning some linguistic features that are identified slowly could alleviate the working memory load.

Morphological awareness exercises and precision of word meaning are important. There is also a need to experiment with ways of teaching standard Arabic grammar early and efficiently, in order to improve comprehension and speed it up. Targeted practice on low-level components that are processed more slowly may result in faster reading and comprehension, which would give students more time to think about the content of texts.

To find out the best way to speed up processing of Arabic, cognitive neuroscientists need to get involved. Many Arab countries are financially well equipped to undertake such research in schools and laboratories, and it could make a huge difference.

Imagine what Arab societies would be like if the vast majority of the population could effortlessly read and instantly interpret volumes of text for their daily lives. If lower-income people could effortlessly read five pages rather than just three and have more time and connected knowledge to think about the implications, they might make different decisions. They could acquire more complex skills. Perhaps different political and religious philosophies would gain support. The geopolitical and social implications of efficient information processing might have seismic effects. And at the very least, Arab schoolchildren could realize their true potential.

Citations for the research summarized in this article can be found at: www.academia.edu/9024123/Efficient_Reading_for_Arab_Students_Implications_from_Neurocognitive_Research

* Helen Abadzi is a Greek psychologist who speaks many languages. She retired from the World Bank after 27 years of service and is currently a research faculty member at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Education. She regularly monitors the emerging research in cognitive science and synthesizes relevant findings to explain and predict likely outcomes from various interventions. Her work has helped early-grade reading fluency become an international priority.

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