Have academics worked on whether "cursive languages" are better taught in some different way?
September 28, 2011 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Search terms and/or citations for research on teaching the reading and writing of languages written in cursive scripts?

I'm getting interested in methods for teaching Urdu to children whose first language is Urdu. In that context, I am curious about whether there has been research on

a) any differences in the way reading and writing skills are acquired in languages that have only cursive scripts (as opposed to block print),

b) more specifically, different teaching methods for such languages.

It seems to me that beginning with the alphabet might not be the best way to go with cursive languages, but I can see why it might. So, I'm most interested in literature about the order in which things are taught, but am open to suggestions about anything related to approaching the teaching of different languages differently.

I'm having trouble figuring out what my query should be to the research database, so identifying search terms is where I most need help. I would be most appreciative if someone knows of a particular reference that would be relevant.
posted by bardophile to Education (9 answers total)
Is there a college near you? Call the library and make an appointment with a research librarian. You should be able to purchase reading privileges if the school doesn't offer them to the public.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:45 PM on September 28, 2011

Unfortunately, that isn't an option.
posted by bardophile at 6:08 PM on September 28, 2011

Okay, I'm not a native speaker, but when I was learning Arabic, many of my classmates were native speakers who were bilingual and literate in English but not Arabic. We were older than your students, but we very much learned the alphabet first, and our instructor (who was interested in keeping abreast of the best materials and techniques in Arabic instruction, and discussed it with us) never seemed to consider doing that part differently. We got over the hump of learning the alphabet fairly quickly and moved on to other things.

That said, Georgetown University seemed to be where many of the instructional materials used to teach Arabic (in America, to English-speaking students) were coming from--could you try contacting someone who is involved in designing course materials?

Karin Riding wrote the grammar which I used, I think, and Kristin Brustad and Mahmoud Al-Batal (at UT Austin) were the authors of the textbooks (Al-Kitaab fii Ta'allum al-'Arabiyya).

Also, this isn't exactly what you mean, but "printed" (naskh) and "cursive" (ruq'a) Arabic script are distinct and different; ruq'ah often uses abbreviated letterforms which combine differently and more extensively than printed Arabic (beyond the regular initial/medial/terminal variations). I imagine there's a similar distinction in Urdu.
posted by pullayup at 8:07 PM on September 28, 2011

Sorry, should have been Mahmoud Al-Batal.
posted by pullayup at 8:08 PM on September 28, 2011

Also, this may not be germane to what you're doing here, but far and away the biggest barrier to literacy in the Arabic speakers I knew--the reason that so many adult speakers were in my Arabic classes--was the huge gulf between the written language (Modern Standard Arabic) and the dialects which they spoke, and they all spoke different regional dialects.
posted by pullayup at 8:17 PM on September 28, 2011

We got over the hump of learning the alphabet fairly quickly

I'm guessing that the fact of being literate in English beforehand helped. But I don't know. Perhaps I'm just creating difficulties where none exist.

There's a lot of discussion about whether, in teaching reading in English, students need to be taught how to put together letters and syllables before they can be taught whole word recognition. From my experience with my son, I know that he recognized many whole words before he had command of the alphabet in English. Combine this knowledge with the fact of letters in Urdu (and Arabic) looking different based on their position in the word, and I'm wondering whether teaching all of the letters and their positions is not something that could safely come later than whole word recognition.

Written and spoken Urdu do not have the same gap that written and spoken Arabic do, so I don't think that has any bearing here. I'm cognizant of the disctinction between printed Urdu and handwritten Urdu, but see that as much more analogous to the distinction between printed English and cursive English.
posted by bardophile at 5:14 AM on September 29, 2011

bardophile, what you're saying makes sense. There is anecdotal evidence, at least, that syllabaries are easier to learn than alphabets than alphabets, apparently because syllables are pronounceable units on their own while letters aren't. The Cherokee syllabary and Canadian syllabics (used to write Cree, Inuktitut and serveral other languages spoken in Canada) are supposed to very easy to learn.

One thing you might look for is phoneme awareness and learning to read. Most research I've run into has been focused on helping children become aware of the sound components of words to make it easier for them to learn to read English. (Exposure rhymed poetry apparently helps with this.) I don't know if there's any research applying this to learning Arabic script or if anyone has taken the approach you're suggesting.

Another thing you might look at are approaches to teaching children to read Korean. The script isn't cursive, but there are some similarities. Hangeul writing consists of ja (syllable blocks) which are in turn composed of jamo (letters). So:
기 gi 가 ga 구 gu 고 go 긴 gin 디 di 다 da 두 du ... etc.
I don't know if common syllable blocks are taught first and then broken down into their components later after children have started to get used to it. It seems intuitive that it would be easier to learn this way. It seems like the script itself would encourage phoneme awareness since rhyming and alliterating characters also rhyme and alliterate visually.

Several MeFites teach school in Korea. They might be able to answer this.
posted by nangar at 7:43 AM on September 29, 2011

(Of course, what I'm saying would also imply that devanagari would be easier to learn, at least initially, than Arabic-based scripts. I have no idea if this true or not.)
posted by nangar at 7:48 AM on September 29, 2011

I can't help you specifically, but the search terms you may want to look into are:
language acquisition
second language acquisition (or SLA)
orthography or orthographic effects
cross-linguistic ______

Oh, check out Diane Ohala's work...she's done a few studies (and cited many other relevant ones) having to do with how children recognize chunks of speech, from phonemes to syllables to whole words. She's done a bit comparing literate and pre-literate children, showing the difference of orthographic influences on language processing and acquisition.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:07 AM on October 2, 2011

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