A preliminary study of the technical use of Arabic in Saudi secondary physics classes
Nouf Mohammed Albadi
University of Newcastle, Australia, and the Ministry of Education, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
John Mitchell O'Toole and Jean Harkins
University of Newcastle, Australia
English for specific purposes research reveals that learners at a variety of levels experience difficulty reading science text, sufficient to impede their acquisition of science understanding. However, little research exists regarding subject-specific language styles or reading difficulty in Arabic. Difficulties with specialised language may seriously impede the development of physics understanding by Saudi students. Remedial attempts may remain ineffective unless informed by a better understanding of specific readability issues. This quantitative study involved 80 female Year 10 students studying science in two cities in Saudi Arabia (Jeddah and Abha). A specialised cloze test based on the mandatory physics textbook was developed to identify language features of the passage that participating students found difficult. Findings reveal that (a) these Saudi students experienced greater difficulty in reading their physics book (28% conceptually correct responses) than that suggested by earlier work with English speakers of similar age (62% conceptually correct responses); and (b) Saudi student difficulties with grammatical categories form a distinguishable pattern, but the pattern differs from that indicated by earlier work with English-speaking student.
Content and language integrated learning (CLIL) suggests that the entire science course should be taught in English, as occurs in parts of Europe (Lorenzo, Casal & Moore, 2009; Pérez-Cañado, 2012) and, more locally, in the United Arabic Emirates (Younes, 2016; Al-Bakri, 2013). However, recent work in Lebanon revealed a preference for communication in Arabic in local science classes (Salloum & BouJaoude, 2017). The Saudi context is slightly different as international expressions in English are being embedded within Arabic text.
Previous work with English suggests that communication in scientific contexts makes use of a specialist language style that can impede student understanding and subsequent success in science study (Phillips & Norris, 2009). This paper documents a preliminary investigation into the existence of such a barrier within Arabic.
'Literacy' can have a range of meanings in different contexts. In its widest sense, it denotes access to specialised knowledge.
The phrase 'scientific literacy for all learners' expresses the major goal of science education - to attain society's aspirations and advance individual development within the context of science and technology (Bybee 1997, p.69).This requires students to function in appropriate and purposeful ways within the variety of language forms that science learners confront: visual representation, mathematical symbolism, and experimental operations (Lemke, 1998). All of this happens within interacting pressures from encounters with instructional science and home languages (Yore & Treagust 2006). As Philips and Norris (2009) noted, the individual development to which Bybee (1997) refers depends on access to specialised knowledge. Expectations of such access may be misplaced.
So, in the present context, scientific literacy is taken to mean the reader's ability to extract scientific understanding from text that embodies the intersection of specialist language and content. It is well established that in English, readers have difficulty with specialist language, particularly scientific language. Is there a pattern in Arabic learner difficulties that is similar enough to that seen in English, to call for responses similar to those used in the field of English for specific purposes (ESP)?
Such 'readability' forms part of communication in science, which is the process that allows transfer of ideas and information between people (Zytun, 2008). This occurs through a range of media: orally; or through written schedules, diagrams, research reports; or through graphs, maps, and pictures (Mazen, 2007, 2008). Contemporary Saudi educational practice privileges written language and this makes reading scientific text a very important communicative skill for students, if they are to achieve commonly accepted science education goals (Khalil, 2012). Development of such skills should begin in upper primary school levels and by the intermediate school students should be able comprehend what they read; extract main ideas; interpret and present data; and make summaries of reading passages (Atiefa & Souror, 2011). All of this is problematic if students cannot read the text and general readability is an attempt to quantify the ease with which students may read different texts.
The use of mandated texts and the considerable uniformity of teaching practice within the centralised Saudi education system suggests that moving beyond such general readability may be useful. In the past, secondary school textbooks were entirely in Arabic and students could easily remember unit names from the initial letter, for example, but in higher education the science curriculum was presented in the English language. However, the most recent secondary texts for the science disciplines are translated into Arabic from English, except for numbers, symbols and unit names, presumably to ease the transition between secondary and tertiary education. The retention of such English expressions within the Arabic text is one of the novel features of the new textbooks. This inclusion of English in the symbols and the unit names might be difficult for secondary school students, as they process the movement to "9.8 m/s2" from the Arabic expression .
It has long been recognised that, within English, the written language of science is different from the more general language used in everyday life (Lindsay, 2011; Wellington & Osborne, 2001). It appears that successful English-medium science students need to show an understanding of specific language of their textbooks; need to be able to use appropriate scientific and technical language; and need to use diagrams and tables to convey meaning (Hanrahan, 2009). Given the importance of centrally mandated science textbooks in the Saudi context, it may be of interest to discover whether similar expectations exist in Arabic-medium science classes. A specific form of Arabic may well be developing for use in scientific contexts, and this form may cause problems for learners. More information on the shape of such a specialised form of Arabic may inform the development of more effective responses to an increasingly recognised problem.
The group average of correct cloze responses is interpreted as an estimate of the access the specific group would have to the meaning of the particular text (Oller & Jonz, 1994). The individual deletions can also be categorised and average reader success in correctly replacing words of a particular category can be interpreted as reflecting more general difficulty with the language feature represented by that category (O'Toole, Cheng & O'Toole, 2015).
The accessibility of a particular text depends on some factors arising from the text and others arising from the reader. Readability formulas in Arabic (such as that suggested by Al-Tamimi, Jaradat, Aljarrah & Ghanem, 2013) represent an attempt to quantify the difficulty that a particular text may pose for a generalised 'reader', in contrast to 'cloze' tests which offer more opportunity to match particular texts against specific reader groups. This makes deletion-based cloze techniques potentially attractive as they avoid "artificial lines between language and content knowledge" (O'Sullivan, 2012, p. 83). The words deleted to form a cloze test may have grammatical or content functions. If learners cannot correctly fill the gaps while maintaining the meaning of the passage, then it can plausibly be inferred that they do not understand that passage. Content words form the most obvious problem within specialist text but failure to comprehend the grammatical framework within which they sit may make the passage equally incomprehensible. Problems in both areas at once are very likely to cause a learner to stop reading.
The cloze test has been employed to assess the level of learner readability within a variety of languages, such as English, Spanish, French and German. Most of the research on Arabic science textbooks attempts to measure the level of text readability and analysis of exact replacement coding of cloze tests suggests that students have palpable difficulty in reading their Arabic science texts (Al-Bardi, 2013; Al-Matrafi, 2010; Ktait, 2002). Research in Arabic language readability has focussed on automated and computerised measurement of readability (Forsyth, 2014).
Close analysis of student errors in replacing words into the gaps produced to form a cloze test can be used to identify specific language features causing problems for particular groups of readers. In earlier work based on English medium science text, over 2000 students completed a range of cloze based on English-language school science textbooks (O'Toole & O'Toole, 2004). This earlier study may allow preliminary comparison between English and Arabic patterns of difficulty, which may, in turn, indicate whether the wider English for specific purposes literature provides any guidance for on-going work in Arabic. Consequently, the data for 654 female Year 10 students who specified English as their heritage language was extracted from this larger set of cloze results to produce a baseline for the present research; similar students studying physics in Arabic may have more, less or different degrees of difficulty with their science textbook. Cloze tasks from the earlier study indicated that based on apparently age-appropriate science text in English, a sample of more than six hundred adolescent students, yielded a mean result of 30.83/50 (standard deviation 11.56; 62% correct). This conceptually correct average cloze score suggests that a Year 10 female student sitting around the middle of this group would be unable to correctly replace over a third of the words deleted. Students who were less able readers of science text would be able to successfully replace progressively fewer of the words deleted, indicating progressively greater difficulty in accessing the meaning of their science textbook.
This smaller set of data was further analysed to produce information regarding the difficulty these monolingual English-speaking students were having with features of their text. This more fine-grained analysis produced a pattern of difficulty with the features of the language of these science books that provides both evidence of some of the causes of student difficulty with the English of their science books and suggestions for remedial action. Broad similarity to this existing English data in the results of the present investigation would suggest that effective responses to these difficulties in English might form a useful place to begin thinking about responses in Arabic-medium Saudi Physics classes.
The present study is guided by the following specific research questions:
Classes occur within the framework provided by centrally produced curricula. Teachers and students receive the mandatory textbooks without charge and teachers are obliged to cover all their mandated content (lessons, exercises and practical work) within specified periods.
Although cloze techniques are potentially attractive, they have also long been the source of controversy (Brown, 2013; Sadeghi-Haddad, 2013; Spolsky, 2000; Stansfield, 2008). In the present case, the analysis of participant conceptual replacement of deleted items to reveal patterns of reader difficulty seems valid. Reader inability to suggest an entry that would maintain some meaning in the text implies some difficulty with the word deleted; and repeated inability to make such suggestions for deleted words of a similar class implies difficulty with that class of words within the specialist style.
Abha is a moderately-sized regional Saudi city with a developed educational system. The results obtained from schools there could be expected to be typical of such contexts within the Kingdom and the fact that the three schools are from the north, south and central parts of Abha should make them typical of the city. Year 10 was chosen because it is the first year of the more specialised secondary school years within Saudi Arabia. Students begin their study of the separate science disciplines at that time.
The passage on which the cloze test was based dealt with gravity and Newton's laws. The content had been covered in class by the participating students before they attempted the test. Student familiarity with this material from their mandatory physics textbook supports the validity of instrument developed from it. Every fifth word was replaced with a numbered gap and students were asked to enter the Arabic word that they thought most clearly maintained the meaning of the passage. The test as whole returned a reliability of 0.970 (Cronbach's alpha) and the subtest reliabilities were Noun (0.877), Pronoun (0.696), Verb (0.781), Adverb (0.653), Conjunction (0.547), preposition (0.513) and technicality (0.892). The instrument as a whole and these subtests all appear sufficiently valid and reliable to permit discussion.
The deletions were then analysed and patterns of student difficulty suggested by patterns of entry error. This analysis produced Table 1, with the following columns:
Cloze items were categorised by the Arabic language feature that they represented.
SPSS syntax routines were written to
Comparison of the two sets of data described below is indicative, rather than definitive. The student groups are approximately the same age and are at similar points in their differing education systems. The language features reported for English are chosen because they match those emerging from separate analysis of Arabic. Although the students did not complete the same cloze tests and were operating in completely different languages, indicative comparison of the shape of their difficulties allows suggestion of an answer to the second research question.
Analysis of the language feature sub-tests gave some indication of the probable linguistic form of this barrier, again compared with earlier data for scientific English in secondary schools (see Figure 1 and Appendix 4). The earlier English data is presented purely for illustrative purposes. The students are also completing Year 10 but the cloze tests were completely different.
It appears that these Saudi students are generally having more trouble with the Arabic of this physics text than the earlier students did with the English of their science books. This suggests that the barrier for students learning physics in Arabic may be similar to, but possibly stronger than, that already documented for English. Figure 1 allows comparison of the form of barrier that may be provided by describable features of the Arabic of the school physics textbook. If the barrier revealed by close analysis of student errors compares with that earlier revealed for English science text, then the greater volume of research available on English for specific purposes may provide some guidance for deeper and more thorough research on Arabic for specific purposes. This would extend the emerging work on readability in Arabic that was described earlier in this paper.
The relative size of the shapes on Figure 1 suggests that these Saudi physics students are experiencing greater levels of overall difficulty than did their English-speaking counterparts. The barrier posed by the specific English that characterises science at both secondary and tertiary levels is fairly well established. Figure 1 and Appendix 4 indicate that there may well also be such a barrier in Arabic. Both Arabic and English readers have predictable difficulty with the technical words within their respective texts. The data from the present study indicates that this happened even though the Saudi classes had previously studied the pages on which the cloze test was based. Failure to correctly interpret the function of deleted grammatical words may be more surprising and the two shapes on Figure 1 suggest that differing levels of difficulty with grammatical features may be characteristic of the two barriers. However, there is enough similarity between the two sets of data for the earlier work in English to provide some guidance for continuing work in Arabic.
|Figure 1: Levels of student difficulty with features of specialist language |
(mean percentage of deletions representing specified feature for
which group was unable to suggest a conceptually correct entry)
Current research into language difficulties in Arabic seems to focus on broader issues of readability as mentioned earlier. The students in this study seemed to be also having difficulty with the more 'grammatical' features of this school physics text in Arabic. Figure 1 indicates that the students got almost half of the deleted pronouns wrong and were unable to provide conceptually correct replacements for more than half of the adverbs, verbs, adjectives and conjunctions. These difficulties were identified through more precise analysis of cloze results and they go beyond broad concerns with readability. The problems with pronouns deserve further investigation as they suggest student difficulties with text cohesion.
Teacher classroom roles greatly impact student performance. The Saudi teaching style has been traditionally teacher-centred but the new reforms call for a shift from teacher- to student-centred approaches, especially in science. Teacher perceptions of the new science textbook that embodies this approach will be discussed in a future publication.
English is currently the dominant international language for science, and science has been identified as the field of knowledge most responsible for the rapid global spread of the language (Ammon, 2001). Most members of the natural sciences academic community read English and the majority of books and articles are published in that language (Swaan 2004).
However, controversy remains regarding the use of English, as opposed to students' mother tongue, in secondary science education. Some educators recognise English as the gateway to innovations and new technology (Amin, 2009) while others clearly prefer use of the mother tongue (Salloum & BouJaoude, 2017) and such use of Arabic is made more complicated by linguistic diversity among spoken forms and between any of them and the Modern Standard Arabic used in textbooks (Dagher & BouJaoude, 2009).
Whilst the actual patterns of difficulty differed in this study, the phenomenon seems clear enough to suggest that existing work on English for specific purposes may suggest possible paths for research into problems in Saudi classrooms. Content and language integrated learning (CLIL) may also provide useful insights. This may also be of wider interest in the Arabic-speaking world.
The degree of difficulty with this mandatory textbook suggests that these Saudi students may face barriers in accessing the information contained in it. Student inadequacies are often suggested as the reason for such access difficulties, particularly in the case of female physics learners. However, these results suggest that at least some of the difficulty lies in text accessibility rather than learner competence. Attempts to increase student performance by focusing on motivation, relevance, class size or grouping, or other worthy educational innovations are likely to fail if they ignore the impact of communication difficulties such as those indicated in this paper.
These results support the relevance of approaches from English for specific purposes and CLIL to difficulties emerging in Saudi physics classes. For example, it may prove useful for physics teachers to be more explicit about the language expectations implicit in the textbook they are asking their students to read, and also more explicit about their own expectations regarding what they expect their students to write. The results of the present study indicate that such explicit language teaching should go beyond the more obvious issues of technical language and reach into the grammar that this study has suggested is characteristic of this mandatory Saudi physics text. Direct treatment of technical vocabulary remains necessary but this study suggests that it will not be sufficient.
However, there are a number of limitations to this preliminary study. The widely recognised divergence between standard Arabic and regional and colloquial variants may explain at least some of the difficulties exposed here. These students may have the same difficulty with anything that they try to read. Students from these three schools may not be representative of female Saudi physics students. The base passage for this test instrument was compiled from several pages of the then-mandated textbook. This may not be fully typical of the reading tasks expected of Saudi physics students. Current changes in Saudi science texts may increase or reduce the difficulties experienced by contemporary secondary physics students. All of these topics would provide fruitful directions for further research.
However, this preliminary investigation inspires sufficient confidence to suggest that further work on differences between the Arabic of general reading matter and that characteristic of secondary physics textbooks could be fruitful. The impact of the inclusion of technical terms in English on student understanding might be of particular interest. Widening the participant sample beyond a single city and involving a greater number of students would challenge the representativeness of these preliminary results. Use of the most recent textbook, intact pages of which include bilingual elements, diagrams and other discourse features of Saudi science text, would increase the representativeness of the text sample.
Notwithstanding such possibilities for further work, this study clearly indicates the existence of a pattern of reader difficulty that is likely to impede learner access to Saudi secondary physics in Arabic.
The schools, teachers and students who participated in this study;
Mr Abdullah M. Almatrafi, English Language Lecturer, Jeddah College of Technology;
Dr Nasser S Alasmari, English Language Lecturer, Jeddah University;
Mrs Mona M. Almatrafi, Deputy Head of Asir Department of Education;
Mr Sherif Aboul Khair Al Rakhawy, English Language Lecturer, Qunfudah College of Technology;
Mrs Hana Alsharif, Physics Teacher in the General Directorate of Education in Assir Province;
Mr Abdulrahman Alsulaimani, Head of General Studies Department, Jeddah College of Technology;
Shaik Mohammed Khamis, Imam of Newcastle Islamic Society Association Mosque;
Dr Musa Alzahrani, University of Um AlQura.
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Galileo concluded, four hundred years ago, that each free-falling body has the same acceleration. It accelerates at the same rate regardless of the kind of matter the body is made of, the weight of that body, the height from which it was dropped, or whether it was dropped or thrown. Bodies fall towards the earth because of gravity. The acceleration due to gravity (g) is slightly modified by where a body is located on earth and the average value of 9.8 m/s2 is often used in calculations.
When dropping a rock accelerating by 9.8 m/s2, this acceleration can be considered positive or negative by the parametric system that is chosen. If we choose 'upwards' as our positive direction, a falling body has a negative acceleration, because it is moving downwards (-g), whereas if we chose 'downwards' as positive, the acceleration would be positive (+g). 'Up' is usually 'positive', so throwing a ball upwards gives it both positive velocity and acceleration. When the ball reaches its greatest height, it begins to fall and both velocity and acceleration become negative.
People sometimes ask about the acceleration of the ball as it begins to change direction at the top of its flight. They don't usually take sufficient time to analyse the situation and their answer would be that the acceleration equals zero. This is not true because gravity applies an acceleration of 9.8m/s2 throughout the ball's flight. When the ball is at the utmost altitude, it is still and its speed is zero. But gravity continues to accelerate the ball at 9.8 m/s2 and it begins to fall, picking up speed as it does. Acceleration moves from positive to negative as the direction changes but it remains at 9.8 m/s2.
|DfRnk (3)||8||7||2||5||6||1||3||4 (Mean = 56%)|
|1. Difficulty: Mean percentage of clear student error in replacing deletions of the stated category.|
2. Noun; Pronoun; Adjective; Verb; Adverb; Conjunction; Preposition;
Technical word; Semi-technical word, Type 1: Semi-technical word with one meaning;
Type 2: Semi-technical word with two meanings:
Type 3: Semi-technical word with three possible meanings; Formal word.
3. DfRnk: Difficulty rank - 1 is most difficult.
4. English results were recalculated from the data beneath O'Toole and O'Toole (2004).
|Authors: Nouf Mohammed Albadi, School of Education, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia; and Ministry of Education, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.|
John Mitchell O'Toole, School of Education, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia. Email: email@example.com
Jean Harkins, School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia.
Please cite as: Albadi, N. M., O'Toole, J. M. & Harkins, J. (2017). A preliminary study of the technical use of Arabic in Saudi secondary physics classes. Issues in Educational Research, 27(4), 639-657. http://www.iier.org.au/iier27/albadi.html