Dyslexia in the Arab world.

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The International Dyslexia Association Perspectives on Language and Literacy Winter 2009 9
The Arab World
This article considers developmental dyslexia from the per-
spective of the Arab world; a geographically wide and linguisti-
cally diverse region incorporating the Gulf Peninsula, the
Levant, the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and North Africa.
There are major cultural and religious ties across the region,
but, as can be expected from a region this size, there are also
many differences.
One of the primary features that connects such a large
region is a common language. Arabic is one of the major lan-
guages in the world and UNESCO statistics put it as roughly
second (along with English and Spanish, but behind Mandarin)
in terms of the number of individuals reporting it as their first
language. These statistics suggest that it is the main language of
communication for more than 300 million native speakers,
with the written form of Arabic being experienced by many
more peoples around the world in the form of religious texts
(particularly the Quran). There are 22 countries in the region
where Arabic is the official language and although Modern
Standard Arabic (MSA) is the unifying Pan-Arabic language,
regional variations exist between native speakers as well
as other (minority) languages (e.g., Berber, Kurdish, Nubian,
Somali, Syriac). Such differences within the Arabic dialects
(due to geographical separation and contact with other
languages) lead to a decrease in mutual intelligibility as geo-
graphical distance increases. For example, a Kuwaiti speaking
in a Kuwaiti vernacular may have problems understanding a
Moroccan speaking in his local dialect, although both use the
same language (i.e., Arabic). This means that the local language
used by one individual (in the Gulf, for example) may not be
understood that well by another individual from another part of
the Arab world, such as the western part of North Africa, which
is geographically distant.
An example of these problems of understanding is evident
in the language spoken in Egypt (see Elbeheri, 2004). MSA is
the official language of the Arab Republic of Egypt, as well as
being the language of education. Most, if not all, Egyptian stu-
dents have a formative exposure to MSA at school, since school
materials and the curriculum are all written in MSA. MSA is
also used in modern literary production and the media, both
written and broadcast, as well as in formal communications.
However, Egyptians do not speak MSA in their everyday life.
The majority will speak an Egyptian colloquial form of Arabic,
of which there are several regional variations. Interestingly, due
to the prolific production of Egyptian film, television, and
music industries, many individuals across the Arab world will
also understand the more dominant colloquial form of Egyptian
(i.e., Cairene) Arabic, though they would be unlikely to use it
in normal conversation. To make the situation more compli-
cated, Egyptian colloquial Arabic is also widely used as a
medium of instruction within educational settings.
An Egyptian child’s main experience of MSA may be in
school, meaning that, despite its commonalities with his or her
home language, he or she may undergo a period of something
akin to second language learning prior to proficiency in MSA—
hence the need to use the colloquial form in the educational
setting. Considered across the Arab world, this scenario will
vary depending on the local context; that is, some local dialects
are closer to MSA than others and in some countries, espe-
cially in the Gulf region, a large proportion of teachers may
come from a different dialect background than their pupils.
Hence, there is a range of forms of Arabic that a child will
experience and understand to different levels, making the lan-
guage context highly complex.
In some countries, especially in the Gulf
region, a large proportion of teachers may
come from a different dialect background
than their pupils.
The specific effects of these variations need to be consid-
ered further in work on language-related learning difficulties,
such as dyslexia. Such sociolinguistic factors may be more
prominent and critical to address in the case of monolingual
Arabic speakers in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries
since a large proportion of their educational settings and teach-
ers come from North Africa and the Levant area.
However, having said that, MSA is still considered the
common language of communication across the Arab world
and the written form represents this common language. Given
that acquiring good skills in MSA is likely to occur during
schooling, learning the written form can be argued to provide a
route to understanding across the Arab speaking countries.
However, despite this role as a means to Pan-Arabic understand-
ing, and the potential significance of written text in cultural and
religious aspects of Arabic life, there are still a large number of
individuals who cannot formally read (potentially some 9% of
the world’s illiterate individuals live in the Arab world). Hence,
it is an important language to consider in terms of literacy acqui-
sition and factors that may be related to literacy learning prob-
lems. Clearly, problems related to formal schooling explain a
Continued on page 10
PERSPECTIVES FROM
The Arab World
by Gad Elbeheri, Abdessatar Mahfoudhi, and John Everatt
large part of the number of individuals without functioning
literacy skills. However, work that also looks at individual
differences in acquisition from the perspective of cognitive-
developmental factors that are often associated with dyslexia
may also help explain weaknesses in literacy acquisition.
Research on Dyslexia
Despite the potential need to consider problems associated
with literacy learning, studies on the occurrence of dyslexia in
the Arab world have hitherto been rare (though see the review
in Mahfoudhi, Elbeheri, & Everatt, in press). Typically, dyslexia
is not recognized as a specific reading difficulty despite efforts
by various Arabic educational authorities to raise awareness of
learning difficulties and special educational needs throughout
the region. Currently, there are no specific pan-Arabic methods
of identification, assessment, or diagnosis for dyslexia available
to either educational psychologists or special educational
teachers. Similarly, there is little work on intervention methods
that can be used specifically for dyslexic individuals learning to
read and write in Arabic. However, the wealth of the Gulf area,
the increase in the number of Western expatriates living in the
region, and the accompanying increase in and trust of American
and English schools have brought about an increased aware-
ness of learning problems, including dyslexia, in some parts of
the Arab world. This has led to an increase in the number of
special educational needs units, schools, and learning disabili-
ties centers across the region, particularly in the Gulf countries.
However, some students who join such English language
schools are Arabic native speakers (i.e., English is an additional
language). When teachers suspect that these students show
signs of dyslexic-type behavior, the problem of the lack of
adequate cultural-fair assessment for these students emerges.
Typically, dyslexia is not recognized
as a specific reading difficulty despite
efforts by various Arabic educational
authorities to raise awareness . . .
Assessment
Many teachers or educational psychologists faced with the
problem of assessing an Arabic child in an international school
start with English tests that have been standardized on English
or American speaking students. The hope is that the Arab stu-
dents attending their schools will have attained a level of profi-
ciency in the English language advanced enough to justify
using English tests. After all, having English tests with English or
American norms is better than having no tests at all. Others,
more concerned about fairness of their assessment tools, resort
to Arabized tests of English cognitive tests. The Stanford Binet,
Wechsler intelligence scales, Test of Non-verbal Intelligence
(TONI), and Raven’s Progressive Matrix are but few examples of
general abilities tests that have been translated, adapted, and
standardized into Arabic in some Arab countries. Generally,
however, Arabic standardized tests are rarely used, either
because they are few in number or because those administer-
ing the assessment process do not speak Arabic and therefore
cannot use them. Generally, there is a tendency in parts of the
region to trust the credentials of a Western (typically English-
speaking) assessor more than an Arab assessor. However, even
when an assessor can use an Arabic version, research is neces-
sary to ensure that the test is appropriate for the context of
testing and that norms are representative of all populations in
which the test is used (see Elbeheri, Everatt, Reid, & Al Mannai,
2006).
There are some tests available that have been specifically
developed for testing in Arabic and these can be utilized when
trying to assess either the current cognitive abilities of the
Arabic speaker or their educational attainment (see Elbeheri &
Everatt, 2007). For example, the Non-verbal Pictorial Mental
Abilities test is a simple and easy to use test that has been used
to measure non-verbal deductive reasoning abilities of Egyptian
children (ages 8 to 18), which only takes 10 minutes to admin-
ister. Items contained in the test are drawn from the Egyptian
environment and can be used across the Arab world, poten-
tially making this test more valid for the environment of testing
than English-background tests that may use inappropriate mate-
rial for the Arabic culture. Similarly, measures of Forward and
Backward Digit Span, which form a part of the Wechsler scales
and have often been used in English-language dyslexia assess-
ment procedures, can be used across a variety of cultures and
languages. As such, they should be applicable for use in Arabic
assessment procedures. However, visual presentation of materi-
als needs to take into account the use of Hindi numerals cur-
rently prevalent across a large part of the Arab world.
In addition to general ability measures, there are examples
of Arabic standardized literacy tests. For example, the Sirs
Ellayan Silent Reading Test is a standardized silent reading test
that was normed in Egypt and suits the Egyptian environment.
The test measures both reading accuracy (through single word
recognition, sentence recognition, and sentence completion)
and reading comprehension (through passage comprehension
and multiple choice questions). It provides a good indication of
children’s (ages 8 to 14) silent reading skills. And similar tests
have been developed in Jordan that have been used in assess-
ment procedures. However, in general, there is a lack of mea-
sures that can be used across the Arab world. For example,
there is a lack of tests of reading fluency, a measure that may
be particularly useful in measuring early acquisition difficulties
of the transparent written form of Arabic. In addition, due to the
large number of homographs in Arabic, when short vowels
(which are represented in the Arabic writing system as diacriti-
cal markings above or below the letters—discussed below) are
not included in text, tests of individual word reading accuracy
out of context would have to use fully vowelized words; that is,
diacritic markers would have to be included in many cases to
ensure that only one correct pronunciation is possible. The
alternative is to present non-vowelized words in passages
Perspectives from the Arab World continued from page 9
10 Perspectives on Language and Literacy Winter 2009 The International Dyslexia Association
where contextual clues are available to allow appropriate lexi-
cal access.
Spelling is another test that is particularly relevant for
identifying dyslexia among learners of Arabic, though again,
decisions need to be made about using assessments of single
word spelling versus passage dictation and whether short vow-
els are required or not. This issue may be particularly important
when assessing older individuals who may be more familiar
with non-vowelized written material outside of religious con-
texts. Another equally important issue is the vernacular of the
individual being assessed and the frequency and familiarity of
vocabularies that make up the test items. Given that test admin-
istration typically involves one individual verbally presenting
information to another, then the large differences in dialects
found across the Arab world (discussed above) need to be con-
sidered, particularly when assessments involve precise articula-
tion and the recognition of articulation, as is the case in most
measures of phonological awareness.
Although research on dyslexia in Arabic is scant, a number
of recent findings are consistent with conclusions derived from
English cohorts suggesting that models of English literacy diffi-
culties may, at least partially, be applicable to Arabic. If this
proves to be the case, it means that measures derived for
English language assessments may be appropriate for modifica-
tion and standardization for the Arabic context. Measures of the
decoding of letter sequences into appropriate pronunciations
(i.e., non-word or pseudoword reading tasks), as well as mea-
sures of phonological awareness (e.g., an awareness of rhyme
or the ability to delete individual sounds from a word), have
been found to be predictive of reading among Arabic learners
(Abu-Rabia & Siegel, 1995; Al-Mannai & Everatt, 2005;
Elbeheri & Everatt, 2007; Smythe et al., in press). These conclu-
sions were similar to those derived from studies comparing
good and poor Arabic readers (Abu-Rabia, Share, & Mansour,
2003; Elbeheri & Everatt, 2007). Such findings suggest that
processes that lead to a recognition of sounds within words and
their relationship to the alphabet have the potential to differen-
tiate those with average ability levels in Arabic reading and
writing from those with literacy skills indicative of dyslexia
weaknesses.
However, such research indicates that there are differences
between findings in Arabic and English, which means that the
appropriateness of simply translating a test from English into
Arabic needs to be determined. Such differences can even be
found in the phonological processing measures discussed
above. This difference may be characteristic of that found when
comparing scripts varying in transparency (see Goswami, 2000;
Seymour, Aro, & Erskine, 2003). Transparency here refers to the
ease with which the learner can determine the relationship
between written symbols and language sounds. High transpar-
ency means close to a one-to-one correspondence between
symbols and sounds, whereas low transparency means that a
symbol can stand for more than one sound and a sound may
be represented by several symbols. English is a low transpar-
ency script—there are lots of irregular words in English. Arabic,
on the other hand, can be presented in a highly transparent
form. However, as mentioned above, some vowels (i.e., short
vowels) are represented by extra diacritical markings that are
not, in the main, included in reading material experienced after
initial learning grades, except in religious and cultural texts.
Accordingly, a large number of Arabic words that appear in
common everyday texts are homographic when presented out
of context (i.e., they look the same but are pronounced differ-
ently and have different meanings, depending on context). In
effect, Arabic has two scripts: a high transparency one when
diacritical marks are used and a low transparency one when
they are not—and the low transparency script is likely to be
experienced in early learning, whereas the low transparency
script is more often used for writings experienced by older
children and adults. Hence, differences between Arabic and
English findings may be related to similar differences found
when contrasting languages of differing transparency; though
this assumption requires further research.
Alternative explanations may relate to the complexity of the
Arabic orthography (see Ibrahim, Eviatar, & Aharon-Peretz,
2002), which in turn may lead to larger visual discrimination
effects in Arabic when compared to English. Another alternative
explanation is the emphasis of Arabic orthography on mor-
phemes rather than sounds (see Abu-Rabia, 2007), which in
turn may lead to larger predictions from morphological aware-
ness tests than found in English. Moreover, the dialectical dif-
ferences (considered above, but also sometimes referred to as
diaglossia) may make it difficult for Arabic children to perform
well on MSA-based phonological measures (see Saiegh-
Haddad, 2005). All these areas need further research to support
the development of appropriate assessment tools.
Learning disabilities in general have
received a good deal of attention across
most of the Arab world recently.
Intervention and Resources
Learning disabilities in general have received a good deal of
attention across most of the Arab world recently. However, it is
rare in legislation to find dyslexia considered differently from
any other disability. For educational purposes dyslexia may be
considered alongside physical handicaps, perceptual impair-
ments (e.g., deafness or blindness) aphasia, autism, or severe
learning disabilities. Where legislation does recognize more
specific disabilities, such as dyslexia, it often contrasts this
against alternative special needs in terms of intelligence quo-
tients (e.g., to be dyslexic, a child has to reach a certain IQ
threshold). As far as we know, there is not a single article in the
Egyptian Law concerning dyslexia, and given that dyslexia is far
from a known term, it is hardly surprising to find that there is
no curriculum provision for dyslexia in mainstream schooling
in Egypt. This is not atypical of the Arab world, although there
are considerable variations: Syria is just starting to recognize
conditions such as dyslexia, whereas across the border in
Jordan and in Arabic speaking communities further south in
Israel there has been some good work attempting to support
children with dyslexia.
Continued on page 12
The International Dyslexia Association Perspectives on Language and Literacy Winter 2009 11
Another example of these variations can be found in Saudi
Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt. Saudi Arabia has a system of train-
ing special education teachers to work in all schools across the
country, but few resources for those teachers to use with chil-
dren with dyslexia, whereas Kuwait is developing resources,
but has few teachers trained to use them. Egypt could be con-
sidered similar to Kuwait in that tools are being developed and
there is a growing awareness of dyslexia and related learning
difficulties—indicated by the large number of meetings and
private organizations in Egypt focused on learning disabilities.
However, again, formal training of teachers is scarce or nonex-
istent. This can be contrasted with other countries across North
Africa where dyslexia, if recognized at all by governments or
the population, is typically covered along with more medical
disabilities or handicaps. Despite some variations, in the main,
the primary source of dyslexia-related resources is outside of
mainstream education—either in relatively rare special schools
or the private sector.
The Way Ahead
Clearly raising dyslexia awareness is vital if it is to be seen
as an important part of education. This needs to be done
through formal education, government policy, advocacy groups,
and professional organizations. Appropriate methods of assess-
ing and teaching the monolingual dyslexic Arabic child, which
address different learning strategies and techniques, need to be
developed. Some attempts at developing specific dyslexia-
friendly education tools and procedures, such as multisensory
approaches to teaching, are being undertaken across the Arab
world. There are also strategies to develop tools designed spe-
cifically for Arabic dyslexia assessment procedures, which in
the main focus on literacy and phonological processing (given
current evidence), but also take account of the features of the
Arabic language and its orthography. There is also an increase
in pan-Arabic work being undertaken, with groups from one
country supporting and benefiting from the efforts of another.
However, governments across the region will need to consider
adopting new laws and policies to support individuals with
specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, and there is
clearly a need for more funding in the field of dyslexia research
that informs practice. Overall, then, there is much work still to
be done, but there is a momentum that is encouraging to expe-
rience and which, if continued, should provide great advances
in the provisions available for the Arabic speaking dyslexic.
References
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nitive processes among reading-disabled and normal readers in Arabic. Reading
and Writing, 16, 423–442.
Abu-Rabia, S., & Siegel, L. S. (1995). Different orthographies different context
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Al-Mannai, H., & Everatt, J. (2005). Phonological processing skills as predictors
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Gad Elbeheri, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Centre for
Child Evaluation and Teaching, Kuwait. Dr. Elbeheri obtained
his Ph.D. from the U.K. where he studied the manifestations
of dyslexia in Arabic. His research interests include cross-
linguistic studies of developmental dyslexia and other spe-
cific literacy related learning disabilities as well as predictors
of literacy ability among Arabic speaking individuals.
Abdessatar Mahfoudhi, Ph.D., is a Consultant to the Center
for Child Evaluation and Teaching, Kuwait. His research
focuses on literacy development and dyslexia in Arabic.
Prior to coming to Kuwait, he lectured at King Saud
University, Saudi Arabia; Ottawa University, Canada; and
Kairawan University, Tunisia.
John Everatt, Ph.D., is Professor of Education at the
University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His research focus-
es on literacy learning and learning difficulties, particularly
dyslexia. Before moving to New Zealand, he lectured in
areas related to psychology and education at the University
of Surrey and before that the University of Wales, Bangor.
A major part of his published works and presentations cover
dyslexia assessment in different languages.
Correspondence may be sent to Dr. Gad Elbeheri, Center
for Child Evaluation and Teaching, Kuwait.
e-mail: g.elbeheri@ccetkuwait.org
12 Perspectives on Language and Literacy Winter 2009 The International Dyslexia Association
Perspectives from the Arab World continued from page 11
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    This paper reports a study of the reading and spelling skills of grades 1-3 Arabic-speaking children in Bahrain. Children were tested on their literacy skills (single word reading and spelling), their ability to decode letter strings (non-word reading) and measures of phonological awareness, short-term memory, speed of processing and non-verbal ability. These tests were included to identify the best predictors of literacy skills amongst Arabic young readers. The results were consistent with the literature based on tests of English-speaking children in that measures of phonological skills (decoding and awareness) were the best predictors of variability in reading and spelling among the Bahraini children. The results are discussed in terms of the literacy experiences of the children and the use of short vowels in Arabic writing.