The project, “Advancing Arabic Language Learning in Qatar,” was funded by a Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) grant in 2009 and this year, the Carnegie Mellon researchers partnered with Qatar Academy to bring their technology into kindergarten classes.
Before starting school, most Arab children do not realise there are two variants of the Arabic language: the local dialect they speak at home and the formal version referred to as Modern Standard Arabic. While rarely used for day-to-day interactions, MSA is the variety used in writing and formal speech.
To address the pressing need to introduce students to MSA, the team of researchers created a series of activities based on the Middle Eastern folk tale Aladdin, which they presented on large, interactive surfaces called Microsoft PixelSense.
The 40-inch displays allow children to interact with the programme and one another at any time. Among the activities, there is an alphabet bingo, where students score points by pairing objects with their first letters. There is also a storyboard, where students recreate the Aladdin tale by placing scenes in the right order.
While the lessons meet Qatar’s Supreme Education Council Arabic curricula, this is the first time such an approach has been used in Qatar. The researchers set out to help students learn to read and write, to build positive attitudes toward MSA and to highlight the relationship between MSA and the local dialect.
To be successful, Zeinab Ebrahim, a professor of Arabic at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and a renowned sociolinguist, knew they would need to look beyond traditional teaching methods.
“When I interviewed older students about their experiences learning formal Arabic they said it was like going back a century,” Zeinab said. “So we knew we would have to get creative to capture children’s interest.”
Jameela Al Shammari, an Arabic and Islamic Studies teacher at Qatar Academy, said the Aladdin Project, as it is referred to at the school, has made a big difference in her kindergarten class.
“I have been teaching here for four years, and I always try to make my classes interesting and interactive, but it can be challenging since there are very few digital resources out there for teaching Arabic,” she said. “This project has really captured the students’ interest, and working around the large screens has helped them listen, share and work in teams,” she said.
The project stemmed from a multidisciplinary team, including Ebrahim, Pantelis Papadopoulos, a research associate in computer science who specialises in educational technology, and Andreas Katatsolis, a professor of communication and design. Supporting them were Ezzohra Moufid, a research assistant at Carnegie Mellon University Qatar, Sara Shaaban, a freelance designer, and Abbas Al Tonsi, a senior lecturer at Georgetown University of Foreign Service in Qatar and a consultant on the project.
The programme also tracks the students’ progress, allowing the researchers to do an in-depth analysis at the end of the semester. Workshops to train the other Arabic teachers at Qatar Academy and other local schools are being contemplated for the future.